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Trump just declared victory over the coronavirus. Here’s why that’s premature.

It’s all about testing, testing, testing — or the lack thereof.

President Trump presented criteria for “Opening Up America Again” during the White House daily briefing on April 16.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Donald Trump more or less declared victory over the coronavirus during the daily White House briefing on Thursday — ignoring signs that the fight against a disease he likes to call “the invisible enemy” is actually far from over.

Trump began by saying that “thanks to our all-out military operation and the extraordinary devotion of our people, we believe we will experience far fewer deaths than even the optimistic projection.” (In fact, as recently as late February, Trump was saying the virus would go away on its own without any Americans dying.) He went on to outline the “Opening Up America Again” criteria that will guide states with sufficient testing capacity and declining numbers of new cases through the process of getting their schools and economies back up and running in a step-by-step manner, with the approval of governors.

“Now that we have passed the peak in new cases, we are starting our life again,” Trump said. “We are starting rejuvenation of our economy again.”

But Trump’s claim that America is on the downside of new cases is dubious. Because the country still doesn’t have enough testing capacity to accommodate everyone who has symptoms or has come into contact with those who do, it’s possible the plateau in new cases that’s happened over the past week just reflects the reality that many cases are going undetected.

A new piece from Robinson Meyer and Alexis C. Madrigal for the Atlantic explains:

The growth in the number of new tests completed per day has also plateaued. Since April 1, the country has tested roughly 145,000 people every day with no steady upward trajectory. The growth in the number of new cases per day, and the growth in the number of new tests per day, are very tightly correlated.

This tight correlation suggests that if the United States were testing more people, we would probably still be seeing an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. And combined with the high test-positivity rate, it suggests that the reservoir of unknown, uncounted cases of COVID-19 across the country is still very large.

Furthermore, Meyer and Madrigal report that the “test-positivity rate” for coronavirus cases in America is about 20 percent — much higher than countries like South Korea and Germany which have had more success bringing their coronavirus outbreaks under control. Since test-positivity rates generally fall along with the prevalence of a disease in a society, the US’s relatively high rate is another sign that it’s too early to declare victory over the coronavirus.

Trump might not want to acknowledge these issues, but his own administration has. As my colleague German Lopez explained on Wednesday, the testing and surveillance system outlined in an early version of the administration’s plan assumes the country will dramatically ramp up its testing capacity to make sure any outbreaks that occur before a vaccine is available are contained.

What the country needs to properly do testing, according to experts, is at least 500,000 tests a day. Some experts call for much more than that — millions or even tens of millions a day — but 500,000 a day is generally considered the minimum to test everyone with symptoms and their close contacts.

Right now, the US is, on a good day, doing about 150,000 tests a day, or fewer than a third of that minimum. The US’s poor pandemic preparedness, as well as Trump’s slow reaction to the coronavirus outbreak, has meant America is still massively undertesting.

To be clear, there are some states — such as Wyoming or Alaska — that still have fewer than 500 cases. For those places, it’s not crazy to think that some semblance of normal life could resume soon. But they aren’t out of the woods either — the lack of widespread testing means that if there’s an outbreak, it could spiral out of control before it’s even detected.

Ultimately, public health experts are in broad agreement that the US needs to significantly beef up its coronavirus testing infrastructure before it makes sense to talk broadly about reopening schools, restaurants, and offices in major population centers. But the US hasn’t made significant progress in that regard. And until it does, Trump’s declarations of victory amount to little more than rhetorical exercises.

The American public seems to generally understand this. New polling from the Pew Research Central shows that 66 percent of people are concerned their state governments will relax social distancing restrictions too soon, compared to just 32 percent who are worried they won’t move quickly enough.

To advance his case that it’s appropriate to talk about reopening the American economy even while roughly 2,000 people in the country per day are dying from the coronavirus, Trump, characteristically, tried to turn that reality on its head on Thursday.

“America wants to be open. And Americans want to be open,” he said.