Mulvaney: COVID-19 testing levels, delays "inexcusable at this point in the pandemic"

How shall Congress spend the next round of imaginary money in the Phase 4 COVID-19 relief bill? Former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has an idea — and a sharp contradiction to his boss’ narrative on testing. Despite Donald Trump’s claims about robust testing, Mulvaney tells CNBC, the truth is that testing is in greater demand and is falling behind as cases spike upward. In both this interview and in an op-ed for the channel, Mulvaney offers his personal testimony that response times for COVID-19 tests make them useless for the decisions necessary for the kind of engagement that leads to economic rebounds.

Congress has spent a lot of money on the “symptoms,” Mulvaney says, but it’s now time to “treat the cause”:

It may be too soon, then, to reasonably conclude that another massive stimulus is necessary. But if lawmakers still see the need to run the presses, they need to realize that the current economic crisis is public-health driven. As such, using ordinary fiscal tools might not be particularly efficacious. Put another way, the fact that people aren’t going on vacation probably has more to do with fear of getting sick than it does with their economic condition. Giving people a check, or some financial incentive to travel, won’t solve their problem. Make people feel safe to go back on an airplane or cruise ship, and they will of their own accord.

Any stimulus should be directed at the root cause of our recession: dealing with Covid. I know it isn’t popular to talk about in some Republican circles, but we still have a testing problem in this country. My son was tested recently; we had to wait 5 to 7 days for results. My daughter wanted to get tested before visiting her grandparents, but was told she didn’t qualify. That is simply inexcusable at this point in the pandemic.

We could also direct more money for research. Or more temporary hospital beds or therapeutics. If we are going to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars, let’s do it to treat the cause of our economic illness, not just the symptoms.

This won’t be received well at the White House, but Mulvaney’s not the only one making this argument. The Washington Post reported yesterday that delays of several days for test results have basically made their functional value worthless, except for those exhibiting symptoms:

Test results for the novel coronavirus are taking so long to come back that experts say the results across the United States are often proving useless in the campaign to control the deadly disease.

Some testing sites are struggling to provide results in five to seven days. Others are taking even longer. Outbreaks across the Sun Belt have strained labs beyond capacity. That rising demand, in turn, has caused shortages of swabs, chemical reagents and equipment as far away as New York.

The long testing turnaround times are making it impossible for the United States to replicate the central strategy used by other countries to effectively contain the virus — test, trace and isolate. Like catching any killer, speed is of the essence when it comes to the coronavirus.

“Instead of going from one step to the next, it’s like you’re already stumbling right out of the gate,” said Crystal R. Watson, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University. “It makes contact tracing almost useless. By the time a person is getting results, they already have symptoms, their contacts may already have symptoms and have gone on to infect others.”

This also calls into question plans for the Republican convention in Jacksonville. The RNC announced that they would do rapid screening for all attendees every day, with 15 minutes for results. The capacity for those tests must be very limited, however, and this will call into question why that limited capacity is being used for what is nothing more than an extended political rally. Shouldn’t that capacity get reserved for essential services, such as contact tracing?

The same issue got plenty of play in the media over the weekend, and is likely to accelerate after Mulvaney’s remarks. Is that what motivated him to speak out? It seems more likely that Mulvaney hoped to reach some of Trump’s base by taking on the argument himself and pointing out the deficiencies in the current effort. Mulvaney’s right that we can’t sustain an economic recovery without curtailing the spread of the disease, and absent a vaccine, the only way to accomplish that is through rapid testing and contact tracing.

Will it work? Thus far, the White House has been uncharacteristically silent about Mulvaney’s remarks. Trump hasn’t tweeted about them, nor has he bragged about testing metrics so far either. Maybe Mulvaney’s testimony still carries some weight in the West Wing.