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Infectious Disease Expert Weighs In On U.S. Coronavirus Testing


President Trump last week unveiled a plan to reopen the country in a phased approach, state by state. How that will look in practice is, to put it mildly, a work in progress. Public health experts warn that the United States has not done nearly enough testing to safely open, and new research suggests the virus is more infectious than previously thought. Dr. Barry Bloom is a professor of public health at Harvard University and a specialist in infectious diseases. And he joins us now.


BARRY BLOOM: Very great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Trump administration released its reopening plan on Thursday, saying governors could reopen businesses this month if they meet certain criteria. How close are states actually to entering into that first phase?

BLOOM: There were good things in that report, particularly the gradual phasing in, not doing anything precipitous and good as we do opening up to keep social distancing measures, like wearing masks and temperature testing and businesses going at the same time. And the other good thing - it didn't have artificial timelines by this date or that date but really suggests that decisions on how to - quickly to open up depend on the scientific data in each community.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course, opening up can't be done without testing, though, which is still seriously lacking here in the United States. I mean, here in D.C., I just had someone I know go to get tested after displaying symptoms. And the results will still take five to seven days.

BLOOM: The testing is truly an embarrassment and has slowed down the response at every level - in a sense, as you've heard, I'm sure, before that we're, in a way, flying blind. And that means we have no idea how many people are walking around with COVID infection but are not sick and are capable of transmitting that. And the only way to find that out is to do a great deal of testing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I must ask, why? Why is this country still struggling with testing when others seem to have it mastered?

BLOOM: There are a couple of reasons. One is that we waited, I think unfortunately, in the beginning to have all the tests done at CDC. And when their test had problems, that slowed us down by weeks. So every week means many, many more cases. In six weeks, you can go from a hundred to 65,000 cases. That's been, to an extent, changed in the sense that now there are large-scale commercial testings just brought on board. But the test that is being used is complicated. It requires technical stuff that is not something people can do in their houses.

And so the next phase, if we're really going to get on top of testing, is to be able to have people prepare samples at home on a regular basis because one test isn't a guarantee that next week or next month we will not be infected.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This becomes particularly crucial because we saw a study out of Stanford this past week that found that coronavirus cases could be 50 to 85 times higher than previously thought. It hasn't yet been peer-reviewed. From what you know about the virus, is it likely that we're vastly underestimating how widespread it is?

BLOOM: It is almost certain that we're underestimating how prevalent it is, particularly with people who are not sick but feel perfectly well. Many of those will become sick. And one of the enormous challenges is we have to think three weeks and four weeks ahead. What we see today is seeding what we will see four weeks from now. And the only way, if you run a business or something that the public is exposed to - you're going to have to know what that percentage of people going to your business or working in your police for are - test positive. And that means an enormous amount more testing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How far away do you think we are from getting where we need to be?

BLOOM: I remain optimistic about the development of new and more rapid tests. And I'm hopeful that the people most exposed - the hospital workers, bus drivers, policemen, firemen - they really need to be tested because they're out on the front lines every day. For the rest, we don't need to test everybody immediately. But we need to get accurate sampling within a city, within a community to know what the local problems are to enable the state governments to decide how and when to release the stringencies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Barry Bloom is a professor of public health at Harvard University.

Thank you very much.

BLOOM: Thank you for allowing me to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.