- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2020

A Trump administration official said Wednesday that controversial changes to coronavirus testing guidelines were determined by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House task force and not commanded by political figures.

“There was no weight on the scales by the president or the vice president,” Admiral Brett Giroir, the U.S. coronavirus testing “czar,” told reporters.Previous CDC guidance said people who thought they were exposed to the virus but didn’t show symptoms should get tested, as public health officials try to root out hidden infections and break up chains of transmission.

That changed this week.

For asymptomatic people who have been within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more, the guidelines now say: “You do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or state or local public health officials recommend you take one.”

It added: “A negative test does not mean you will not develop an infection from the close contact or contract an infection at a later time.”

Adm. Giroir underscored that latter point in a conference call, saying a false sense of security may lead to trouble. For instance, a person may test negative two days after exposure but “that doesn’t mean on day four you can visit grandma or go out without a mask.”

He said the guidance is not meant to restrict local public health officials, but instead let them guide whether a test is warranted due to a person’s traits or conditions in the area.

“We’re trying to get appropriate testing, not less testing,” Adm. Giroir said. “There will be more asymptomatic testing where it’s most needed, and hopefully less where it’s not needed.”

He said top government scientists, including CDC Director Robert Redfield and White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx, signed off on the changes. Still, the guidelines baffled many experts and raised questions about political influence, as the pandemic complicates President Trump’s reelection bid.

“I think many people were thinking as testing became more available — as it became easier to do, less costly and results more quickly available — we would move to a more-testing scheme, rather than a less-testing scheme, and so a lot of us are scratching our heads about this,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.

He also said the switch seemed somewhat paradoxical, given the administration’s push to reopen the economy. Failure to test potentially exposed individuals could prompt them to remain quarantined at home for all 14 days of the virus’s incubation period.

Mr. Trump often complains that widespread testing increases the overall case count, making the U.S. look bad on the global tally sheet. Adm. Giroir said the country is “flush with testing” and the guidance was not designed to reduce the total numbers. He said he expects overall testing to increase as workplaces and schools order more diagnostics as part of their screening.

“There’s nothing in here that is meant to intentionally decrease the number of tests,” he told reporters.

Democratic governors were skeptical. On Twitter, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the guidance “will not be the policy of the state of CA.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo questioned federal motives, saying the Trump administration is engaging in denial.

“This is not science. It’s politics. Politics that are dangerous to public health. It’s indefensible,” the Democrat tweeted.

Mr. Cuomo is touting his state’s efforts to wrangle the virus. Only about 1% of coronavirus tests in his state are returning positive after the state was slammed early on, though the Justice Department said Wednesday it is investigating whether a New York order that barred nursing homes from turning away potentially infected residents led to more deaths.

The department requested COVID-19 data from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan, saying they required admission without adequate testing.

“Protecting the rights of some of society’s most vulnerable members, including elderly nursing home residents, is one of our country’s most important obligations,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”

Investigators want to know if the orders led to “thousands” or more deaths, violating the rights of residents under the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December and swiftly spread around the globe. The U.S. accounts for a little over 4% of the global population but has recorded over a fifth of the deaths, with nearly 179,000. Adm. Giroir said national trends are improving, with the percentage of tests showing positive down to 5.49%.

“That continues about a six-week trend in the downward direction,” he said.

He said no one should be spiking the football, however, because the country could squander gains if it is not careful.

“It is fragile,” Adm. Giroir said. “If we don’t wear masks, avoid crowds, do good hygiene — we could reverse trends.”

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