Trying to reopen society without widespread testing is ridiculous

When it comes to talk of re-opening society, experts and Trump have very different ideas in mind.
Image: A coronavirus testing site outside International Community Health Services during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Seattle
Nurse Tina Nguyen holds out a nasal swab for a patient at a coronavirus testing site outside International Community Health Services in the Chinatown-International District in Seattle on March 26, 2020.Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

It's only natural to wonder about the next step in the fight against the pandemic. A variety of public officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have acknowledged that we're in an exceedingly difficult period of mitigation, and that social distancing is really the only available tool that's proven to be effective, but this period will give way to a new dynamic in the coming months, as the United States "flattens the curve."

But coming to terms with the nature of what the next phase looks is important. The threat will not have disappeared, and the prospect of a vaccine is still on the horizon. Common sense suggests the response after social distancing will require, among other things, extensive testing and everything associated with it -- expanded availability of supplies, far more testing facilities, an army of qualify lab technicians, etc.

Without testing, we could see society re-open, only to invite a deadly second wave.

Except, Donald Trump doesn't seem to agree. The president told reporters yesterday, "Hopefully we're going to be opening up -- you can call it 'opening' very, very -- very, very soon." When a reporter asked about the importance of making sure people are safe before re-entering workplaces, Trump was ... vague.

"We want to have it, and we're going to see if we have it. Do you need it? No. Is it a nice thing to do? Yes. We're talking about 325 million people. And that's not going to happen, as you can imagine."

At the same briefing, a reporter reminded the president that Scott Gottlieb, who led the FDA during the first two years of the Trump administration, has talked about 750,000 tests per week being needed before the economy is opened.

"I don't like using the word 'needed' because I don't think it's 'needed,'" the president replied, adding that the administration would "try" to reach such a figure, though it's "a very high number."

It's setting some important parameters for the coming months. When public-health experts talk about re-opening society, they're talking about a pre-vaccine dynamic that requires significant and ongoing changes to Americans' daily lives. When Trump talks about re-opening society, he thinks it'd be "nice" to have a comprehensive testing regimen, but he doesn't see it as altogether necessary.

Buckle up.