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Despite Trump's Claims, U.S. Falls Behind In Coronavirus Testing

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's going to be at least another month of social distancing. President Trump made the announcement last night, extending the coronavirus guidelines that urge Americans to stay home through the end of April. Top administration officials say the measures are working, but it is too soon to ease up on them. And they say that now that testing is finally ramping up, it's going to give a clearer picture about who is sick and where they live. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to talk about the latest. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So we just got to bear down, right? I mean, life is not going to be normal anytime soon.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, these social distancing measures remain in place through April through all of the country. Top adviser Anthony Fauci says, what we're doing now, staying home, it is working, but it would be premature to relax these measures. There are now more than 143,000 cases. So this means schools and businesses remain closed and gatherings limited.

MARTIN: So President Trump had previously said, strongly suggesting, that he could lift these restrictions by Easter. What happened?

AUBREY: Well, he acknowledged last night that that was aspirational. In fact, the administration now says, according to some models, it's around Easter, which is April 12, that deaths are expected to peak. So the worst may be ahead. But the president predicted the country will be on our way to recovery by June 1. That's his prediction.

MARTIN: So the president last night also repeated his false claim that the United States is doing more testing than any other country and that's why we're seeing more cases, right? I mean, just fact-check that for us.

AUBREY: Sure. I mean, the cases are growing in part because the virus is spreading, and so what he says is not true. Yes, we're detecting more cases because we are testing more, but we're a big country - about 330 million people. So on a per capita basis, we have not done as much testing as countries - say, South Korea or Italy.

MARTIN: Right. So there is this new test that could speed things up, though, right? It's just been approved by the FDA.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about it?

AUBREY: So the new tests can give results in about 10 to 15 minutes instead of days.

MARTIN: Wow.

AUBREY: The FDA granted emergency use authorization on Friday - right, big game changer. And the company behind it, Abbott, says the tests will be rolled out this week. They say they can do about 50,000 tests per day. And some clinicians I spoke to say this is really important. I mean, think about it this way - instead of having to send this off to a lab, the test is run right in the doctor's office on the same device that doctors use to do a strep test or a flu test. I spoke to Norman Moore. He's the director of infectious diseases and scientific affairs at Abbott.

NORMAN MOORE: The idea that we can actually get results in under 15 minutes, when it used to take hours - and of course, there's a lot of reports saying days to two weeks because of the backlog - this should be highly unique in fighting this virus.

AUBREY: And another really important development here is that the CDC has just changed its guidelines, so people can now swab themselves. So if you need a test, you can take the swab, stick it in your nose or your throat then give it to the physician or nurse. And this is significant because it could help prevent the spread to health care workers.

MARTIN: Right.

AUBREY: The self-swabbing could also help preserve masks that are in short supply, since health care workers have to put on protective gear, the masks, every time they take a sample. So this could be helpful.

MARTIN: So just underscore for us why testing is so important.

AUBREY: Well, without testing, we don't know who's sick and where. And so it's hard to say - when you safely lift these restrictions, it's hard to make those decisions. So with all these new tests coming online, if tens of thousands of more people can be tested daily and get the results much quicker, if this goes smoothly, this will be helpful.

MARTIN: What about experts outside the administration? Is there pretty much uniform agreement that extending the social distancing guidelines through April 30, that that's a good idea?

AUBREY: You know, many people I've spoken to say this does seem to make sense. We still haven't heard all the details about how the administration plans to ultimately lift the restrictions. But former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says this is a prudent decision. He says it would've been way too early to lift the restrictions now because we are nowhere near the end. When I spoke to him yesterday, he used a baseball analogy.

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: You know, we're still in the third inning of coronavirus spread throughout the country. But as you see the epidemic run its course and a couple of weeks after you see some sustained reductions in the number of new cases, you might be in a position to start lifting some of these restrictions and opening up businesses again. You need to do it gradually, and you need to do it with an eye towards implementing other steps to try to mitigate risk and mitigate spread.

AUBREY: So Gottlieb is giving a kind of May timeline. But, you know, a lot depends, Rachel, on people continuing to hunker down, doing their part, following the recommendations. He says we will be in a better situation when there are treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

MARTIN: Yeah. What about a vaccine, Allison? Any more information on the latest timeline for when we might see one?

AUBREY: So a vaccine is not likely for another 12 to 18 months at the earliest. There's a lot of research underway, but scientists have to show efficacy, safety. On the treatment side, there is hope that by this summer there may be something in place. There are antibody treatments being studied, antivirals. For one drug that's shown some promise, Remdesivir, early clinical trial data is expected by mid-April - so soon-ish.

MARTIN: This is a grim question, but it's important, right? Have we learned anything over the last few weeks about who in the U.S. is getting sick and the people who are dying from this?

AUBREY: Well, so far, what's been released really mirrors what we've seen in China - oldest people hit hardest, but as we just heard, younger people, too. About 40% of people hospitalized early on in the U.S. with COVID were under the age of 55. So it is certainly not just elderly people. The state of Louisiana released information on underlying medical problems among people who've died there - about 40% had diabetes, 30% kidney disease, 30% percent were obese. And we know from other countries, the vast majority of people who've died from COVID do have underlying conditions that put them at risk.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Allison Aubrey for us. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you very much, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELIOS' "VAINGLORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.