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CDC Changes Testing Guidelines To Exclude People With No COVID-19 Symptoms

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Confusion and concern follow the Trump administration's rewrite of coronavirus testing guidelines. Public health experts fear the changes will lead to less testing, which the president has repeatedly requested. But the administration denies that. NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: There was no press release or announcement, but instead on Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly updated the website that provides guidance for coronavirus testing. The old guidelines said people who had been exposed to someone with coronavirus should get tested. The new guidelines leave that call to people's doctors and state and local public health officials. That led to widespread speculation that the guidance is intended to reduce testing. Today, Admiral Brett Giroir from the White House Coronavirus Task Force told reporters that was not the intent.

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BRETT GIROIR: We don't expect that the volume of tests will be reduced. And in fact, we do believe with some upcoming program that the number of tests will go up significantly over the next couple of months.

HARRIS: Giroir acknowledged that the guidelines were reviewed and edited in Washington and not simply a CDC product. He said the intent is to shift testing so it's driven more by public health officials around the country and less by individuals who want to test because they're worried but not sick.

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GIROIR: And in fact, the goal is to make this more strategic and intelligent by putting more power and more authority in the hands of the public health officials. That's clearly the intent, and I think it's explicit within the guidance.

HARRIS: But springing this as a surprise on public health officials, as happened here, is a poor way to accomplish that, says Dr. Georges Benjamin at the American Public Health Association.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: Nobody knows what they mean. And they did not share this, as far as I know, with anybody beforehand. And so I think my good friend is spinning it a little bit.

HARRIS: Benjamin agrees that there's a lot of room for improvement in who gets tested and under what circumstances. But he says this new directive doesn't help.

BENJAMIN: At the end of the day, this undermines the credibility of the CDC because now you've got everybody pointing fingers at one another. And the truth of the matter is, if you want to make sure that the right people get tested with the right tests at the right time, then you need a national testing strategy that's been very thoughtful, that's science-based, that is in print and that everybody understands. And they've not done that yet.

HARRIS: Another big name, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is also unhappy with the new guidelines. The most prominent member of the Coronavirus Task Force was in surgery when the guidelines were finalized. And he told CNN he was worried that they send the wrong message. Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WASHED OUT SONG, "EYES BE CLOSED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.