The president finally declared a national emergencytwo very big words, he admiringly observedwhich will allow the federal government to provide much more support in the fight against the novel coronavirus. He announced the news in a Friday press conference that was late, unfocused, and confusing to followin other words, thoroughly in keeping with the administration’s response to the pandemic.
The main thrust of the announcement, which took place in the White House Rose Garden, was this: the Trump administration has taken bold, proactive steps to forge what Vice President Mike Pence called a historic public-private partnership to expand coronavirus testing. Health care companies LabCorp and Roche Diagnostics are working on producing tests that will be available sometime in the next few weeks. Retailers like Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, and Target will set up drive-through testing centers in their parking lots. And Google is supposedly working on a websiteby Sunday night well even know when it will be ready to launch, according to Pencethat will direct symptomatic people to those drive-throughs. The plan, as the White Houses new coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx put it, is proactive, leaning forward, aggressive, trying to stay ahead of the curve.
Which curve would that be, exactly? Whereas governments like Singapore and South Korea quickly instituted testing protocols when the coronavirus reached their borders, the slow and error-filled rollout of testing in the US has been the most critical failure of the federal government response to the pandemic thus far. More than a month after the first confirmed case on American soil, the press and social media are full of accounts of patients still unable to get tested even with doctors requests. Even today, in response to repeated questions from reporters, no one in the administration could say precisely when sufficient tests will be available.
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A key purpose of todays press conference was to convince you that none of this is the administrations fault. I dont take responsibility at all, Trump said in response to a question about the lack of tests. Because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time. After weeks denying that there even was a testing shortage, this is apparently Trumps new line: that excessive red tape, not the administrations own fecklessness, has hampered US testing capabilities.
This picks up on Trumps false claim from last week that a rule adopted by the Obama administration had slowed the governments response. In fact, there was no such rule. And yet, grading on the most generous possible curve, the presidents new theory of the case represents progress. Just a week ago, Trump was declaring that anybody that wants a test can get a test. At least now he admits that this isnt true. The lie has shifted from its not a problem to its not my problem.
So it went in response to other questions. Why did Trumps administration get rid of the national security officials responsible for responding to global health crises? When you say meI didnt do it; we have a group of people, the president said. You say we did that, I dont know anything about it. Why isnt Trump self-quarantining after posing for a picture with a Brazilian official who has tested positive for the virus? There was somebody that they say has it, I have no idea who he is.
Even as he denied responsibility for the governments missteps, Trump was eager to take credit for restricting travel from China and Europe, which, he claimed, saved a lot of lives. But with more than a thousand confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the US, and likely many thousands more unconfirmed, its far too late for any travel restrictions to have much impact.