Under growing pressure to expand a national testing strategy seen as key to reopening the economy, President Donald Trump has unveiled a plan to ramp up the federal government’s help to states — but some public health experts are saying it falls short.
“Testing is not going to be a problem at all,” Trump said confidently as the government response task force announced the new guidelines, seven weeks after the president said that anyone who needed a test for the coronavirus could get one.
The Trump administration’s new testing plan comes in two documents — a blueprint and overview — and leaves the responsibility on states to develop their own plans and rapid-response programs, describing the federal government as the “supplier of last resort.”
Governors and lawmakers, meanwhile, have pressed for a more robust testing plan from the federal government for the last month, insisting that widespread testing be in place before ending the stay-at-home orders that have shut down much of the country. Labs also continue to report problems with the current supply chain.
It comes as the Trump administration revisits its communications strategy — with the president expected to make fewer, shorter appearances at task force briefings and to focus on the economy as opposed to health aspects of the pandemic.
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Here are Tuesday’s most significant developments in Washington:
Here are the latest developments in the government response:
Trump, in remarks on small businesses, says US will hit 5 million tests a day ‘very soon’
President Donald Trump, from the East Room of the White House, delivered remarks touting his administration’s support to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program Tuesday afternoon, despite the program facing several technical problems and other “glitches” the president himself has previously acknowledged.
“Today we’re really celebrating American workers and small businesses,” the president began. “We’re gonna make it so — as we’re opening up the country — you’re gonna be in good shape as opposed to be losing your business.”
Since the program became law four weeks ago, it has since faced massive problems, such as large corporations taking loans intended for small businesses and its running out of funds within days of launching — but Trump took the opportunity Tuesday to highlight its success.
The president was joined on stage by his daughter and presidential adviser, Ivanka Trump, who assisted him in calling up several businesses and employees who say they have benefited from it.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, after thanking Ivanka “for putting this together” also briefly outlined how the Treasury Department has helped small businesses and American households amid the pandemic — though many in both groups are still waiting on their payments.
“That is over $650 billion in the PPP, $300 billion in disaster loans, and over $20 million of grants,” Mnuchin said. “We have been very clear and announced today that any loan over $2 million will have a full review for forgiveness before they are repaid, because this is the story of small business.”
Questions from reporters shifted the conversation from Trump’s efforts to help small businesses to the country’s need to implement testing amid the deadly pandemic. After Harvard University released a study recommending the U.S. conduct at least 5 million tests a day by June, the president was asked if he is confident the U.S. can get there.
“We will be there very soon. If you look at the numbers, it could be that we are getting close. I don’t have the numbers right now. We will be there soon,” Trump said.
The president has denied any problems with U.S. testing for the last seven weeks, when he originally said that anyone who needed a test could get one, and continued to brag on the country’s testing capacity in his afternoon remarks.
“We have tested much more than anybody else times two. Or every country combined, we tested more than every country combined,” Trump falsely claimed.
In an interview moments after the president’s East Room remarks, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and prominent member of the coronavirus task force — who has been noticeably absent in recent briefings — offered a more candid look the country’s testing system.
Fauci told CNN Tuesday afternoon that he expects everyone who need a test to be able to get a test towards the ends of May or beginning of June.
“Everyone who needs a test — according to the way we’re approaching the identification, isolation, contact tracing, keeping the country safe and healthy — hopefully we should see that as we get towards the end of May, the beginning of June,” Fauci said. “That’s what I’m being told by the people who are responsible for the testing.”
Fauci said Adm. Brett Giroir, who is overseeing testing for the federal government, had a flow chart of all the different states that still need tests in their last call with governors. Fauci, calling himself the skeptic in the room, admitted that while the country’s testing “isn’t perfect yet” it’s “headed in the right direction.”
“The point was made to them [governors] that if, in fact, you still don’t have either the test or the material to do it, we will call you up, and we will try and connect you with the pathway to get that,” Fauci said. “The fact that we have to do that means that what you’re hearing is true, in some respects, it isn’t perfect yet by any means.”
Trump to sign order to keep meat processing plants open under Defense Production Act
When asked at the Oval Office meetings if there is anything the administration is doing to make sure there is enough meat supplies in the supply chain, after Trump retweeted a message earlier that restocking meat is taking “longer than usual,” he said he believed he would sign an executive order “today” to address liability problems.
“We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe. And that will solve any liability problems where they have certain liability problems. And we’ll be in very good shape,” Trump said, adding that they’re working with Tyson. “There’s plenty of supply. It’s distribution. And we will probably have that today solved. It was a very unique circumstance, because of liability.”
Officials in Iowa have been asking the president to use the DPA to declare the plants critical. GOP Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, who rarely spurs the administration to take action, wrote to Trump Monday to push him to invoke DPA to address the “on-farm and on-ranch livestock emergency” in order to “help keep food production plants open safely.”
The president also confirmed at an event in the East Room Tuesday afternoon he would signing an executive order on meat packing plants sometime “in the next hour or so,” he said.
“With the meat packing and transportation, we have had some difficulty where they are having liability that is unfair to them,” Trump said. “I should be signing that over the next hour or so and that will free up the entire system here. I fully understand it is not their fault.”
— ABC News’ Katherine Faulders and Trish Turner
Florida Gov. DeSantis says Florida has surpassed testing needs, sitting beside Trump in Oval Office
GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seated next to President Donald Trump, appeared to lay the groundwork to start reopening his state, announcing from the Oval Office that Florida has more testing capability than they needed and that moving to phase one would be a “small step” for the state — which the president called “a fantastic thing.”
“I think for Florida, going from where we are now to phase one is not a very big leap I think it will be able to be a small step for us but we’re going to approach it in a very measured, thoughtful and data driven way,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis, armed with charts and photos of Florida testing sites — including a golf cart testing site in the Villages, where 1,200 were tested with zero positives — outlined some of the steps Florida has taken to make testing more available, like giving extra attention to nursing homes and allowing licensed pharmacists to conduct tests themselves.
“We definitely have enough supplies and everything, but I think the key is going to be finding pockets that were not testing as much. Obviously, we’ve got testing everywhere in Miami, because they have the most cases,” DeSantis said. “So I think this walk up site is going to give us some confidence that we’re going into places that may have been overlooked and giving people easy access.”
According to the Florida Department of Health, as of Tuesday morning, the state has conducted over 366,000 tests, but it’s unclear how many tests have been requested. The state also reports nearly 33,000 COVID-19 cases and 1,200 deaths.
With Florida’s state’s stay-at-home order set to expire in two days, on April 30, DeSantis said he will have an announcement tomorrow on what he will do with it moving forward.
“Obviously we are thinking about what we need to do, so we will announce it tomorrow, about the next steps forward for Florida,” DeSantis said, adding that he was taking in account the advice of his own “re-open Florida task force.”
“The next step is going to be done thoughtfully. It’s going to be done in a measured way, and it’s going to be done with an eye to making sure that we’re not pretending that this virus just doesn’t exist. I mean we have to make safety, a priority,” DeSantis said, when asked about reopening the state to tourism. “I will say though that I do think there’s a path to do that.”
DeSantis faced heavy criticism for resisting to close Florida beaches through March, while photos showed residents and tourists flocking to the state. The governor put a stay-at-home order into place on April 1, after speaking with President Trump, whose advice he relies heavily on.
He defended his decision again in the Oval Office, saying he had taken “tailored” steps, not “draconian orders” imposed in other states.
“Everyone in the media was saying Florida was going to be like New York or Italy, and that has not happened,” DeSantis added.
When the president initially announced his guidelines on “Opening Up America Again” last week, DeSantis said at the time he would use the president’s guidelines as “a baseline” and adjust them for Florida — but the close meeting in the Oval signals the two might be in closer lockstep than has been announced.
While Florida continues to accept commercial air flights from Latin America, the president asked the governor if he would soon consider “cutting off Brazil,” where the case rate is high.
“Well, not necessarily cut them off,” DeSantis said.
“Would you ever want to ban certain countries?” Trump followed up.
DeSantis replied that he would let the president know if he felt countries coming in through Florida were a threat to the U.S.
Just hours after DeSantis departed the Oval Office, the Florida Department of Health announced one of the highest daily death rates since the pandemic started.
House not returning to Washington next week after all
Less than 24 hours after saying House lawmakers will return to Washington, House leadership has reversed course: the House will not return to Washington next week as expected.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer made the announcement Tuesday morning, reversing an announcement he made on a Democratic Caucus conference call the previous day.
“The House physician’s view was the risk to members was not one he would recommend taking,” Hoyer said. “Based upon members, the doctor’s thoughts, I talked to the Speaker, and we both concluded that based upon – we ought to listen to the medical authorities because we’ve urged that to be the case for everybody, and so that’s what we’re doing.”
Hoyer said after consulting with the House attending physician, who noted that coronavirus cases in the District are still on the rise, Democratic leadership determined that it is not a good time for more than 400 members to safely return to the nation’s capital.
“The House doctor, when I talked to him yesterday, was concerned because the numbers in the District of Columbia are going up,” the Maryland Democrat said. “They’re not flat and they’re not going down.”
The change of course comes after it was reported that several House lawmakers were increasingly concerned about the decision to return next week.
The Senate, meanwhile, is still set to return on Monday.
— ABC News’ Mariam Khan
Giroir says testing 2% of population per month “a minimum floor,” though responsibility is still on states
Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir, who oversees testing for the coronavirus task force, addressed criticism that White House guidelines for testing are insufficient to reopen the economy, saying the federal government’s initiative to make sure the states have the ability to test 2% of their populations each month “really is sort of a minimum floor.”
“There are many states that want to do 4%, 6%, 8% every month. We have the supply chains figured out,” Giroir said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Addressing studies that say more testing than that is required, like Harvard University roadmap estimating the U.S. needs to be conducting five million tests per day by early June, Giroir said, “We don’t believe those estimates are really accurate, nor are they reasonable in our society.”
President Trump did not mention monthly percentages of state populations during his news conference Monday, and is it not in the written material issued by the White House. Instead, Trump said Monday said the U.S. would “double” the number of tests it had been doing and repeated the assertion that the states were getting what they needed.
Giroir also responded to former New Jersey governor an ABC News Contributor Chris Christie’s assertion that President Trump needs to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up testing, saying, “For most circumstances the DPA is not necessary because there’s maximum production. All the industries are working together.”
“On the supply chain related to testing, there will be a DPA action today, but it’s not one of the forceful DPA actions but a hand up, an investment in American industry that will greatly expand the testing we need,” he added.
Mnuchin: Treasury and Small Business Administration to audit every Paycheck Protection Program loan over $2M for borrower ‘criminal liability’
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin gave a preview of an upcoming announcement from the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration that they will audit every Paycheck Protection Program loan over $2 million. Mnuchin placed the blame squarely on the borrowers, not the banks, for knowingly taking huge loans, even though they had other cash assets on hand.
“It’s the borrowers who have criminal liability if they made this certification and it’s not true, and as I said, we’re going to do a full audit of every loan over $2 million. This was a program designed for small businesses, it was not a program that was designed for public company that had liquidity,” Mnuchin told CNBC Tuesday morning.
According to Treasury rules, larger companies that the program was not designed for have two weeks to return their loans or they will face financial liability.
“I’m going to be putting out an announcement this morning that for any loan over $2 million the SBA will be doing a full review of that loan before there is loan forgiveness so we’ll make sure that the intent for taxpayers is fulfilled,” Mnuchin added.
He also called out the Los Angeles Lakers for taking a loan but said he was glad they returned it.
“I never thought in a million years the Los Angeles Lakers would have taken a $4.6 million loan that’s outrageous. I’m glad they returned it or they would have had liability.”
— ABC News’ Matthew Vann