MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Of the many, many questions raised by the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps the most basic on many of our minds is this. When do things go back to normal? Also, will they ever go back to normal? And what would normal even look like at this point? We are told social distancing is helping to flatten the curve in some parts of the country. We're told to wear masks if we have to go out in public. But we are also told this - that we will need testing, widely available, reliable, robust testing and an incredible amount of detective work to trace and contain this pandemic.
That is the job of the nation's foremost health protection agency, the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC is led by director Robert Redfield, and he joins me now by phone from the White House. Dr. Redfield, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
ROBERT REDFIELD: Thank you very much, Mary Louise. Glad to be here.
KELLY: To this question of normal and how we will get back to something resembling normal life, let me start there. What is your sense of where we are in the arc of this?
REDFIELD: Well, I think at this stage, we're nearing the peak of the outbreak, the pandemic in our country right now. And I think we'll begin to see the curve begin to go down. And I expect we'll see that continue, aggressively decreasing cases over the next couple weeks across the country.
KELLY: Let me focus on testing. When we hear the president talk about reopening the economy, when you and I speak about returning to something resembling normal life, how can that be done before a robust and reliable testing program is in place across the country, which we keep hearing from doctors and patients across the country it's not?
REDFIELD: Yeah. Clearly, testing is going to be a critical piece. Every day it's getting better. I think Admiral Giroir, I think, reported the other day we just were about to pass, if we haven't passed, 2 million tests.
KELLY: I'm sorry. The 2 million tests - that's the number of tests that have been performed to date and they've got results for?
REDFIELD: I think he's really close to 2 milion. I think he was right under 2 million yesterday. So today, he's probably over it.
KELLY: But the estimates, as you know - I'll say, you know, one expert, the director of Harvard's Global Health Institute, Dr. Ashish Jha, he says the U.S. would need the capacity to perform hundreds of thousands of tests a day to get this under control. We're nowhere near that.
REDFIELD: Well, I think we're getting close. I'd refer to Admiral Giroir. I think clearly we're in that range of over a hundred thousand tests now. The big labs - LabCorp, Quest, Mayo, BioReference Labs, they're on board. And the backlogs are finally done. So they're really able to do real-time testing.
KELLY: The backlogs are done? Just to stay on that point for a second. We're hearing otherwise from doctors and hospitals across the country who are still reporting backlogs and testing results.
REDFIELD: Yeah. According to LabCorp, their backlogs are done.
KELLY: They're one of two big - the two main commercial labs. Quest is still reporting a backlog. Does that square with your knowledge?
REDFIELD: I haven't talked directly to Quest. I would refer to the admiral. But I did - LabCorp did tell me that their backlog was now completed.
KELLY: I mean, the history here is that the CDC, your agency, was widely criticized for botching the initial test shared with state labs in February and then for delays in widespread testing and then for delays in getting the results of that. With the benefit of hindsight, what went wrong?
REDFIELD: Yeah. You know, I don't see the narrative that way. Unfortunately, that's the narrative the way it was. CDC rapidly, within seven days to 10 days, developed the test based on the sequence. That test is very accurate. It's accurate the day we opened it, and it's accurate today.
KELLY: The time period is - we're talking February here? Is that what you're referring to?
REDFIELD: Well, we had to have it - we had it in January because that's when we diagnosed the first case in Washington, and we used our test to accomplish that. We then expanded that test to be able to put it out in the public health labs. And when we did that, it turned out that one of the reagents didn't react in a reliable way as we do our quality control verification process with all the public health labs in the country, about twelve of them - it worked perfectly. But there were a number that they were having problems with one of the reagents. We investigated it, figured it out and corrected it. So somebody would - might say that's botched. I don't think that's botched. I think it's us doing our job.
KELLY: Well, they sent it back, right? I mean, state public health officers were sending the test kit back to you, saying this doesn't work.
REDFIELD: Right. But the point was that's the normal process when you scale it up to validate in quality control to make sure everything is working in the field.
KELLY: Just before we move on from what happened in January and February, why didn't we use the tests everybody else was using globally, that was available, that appeared to work?
REDFIELD: Well, I would refer you to the FDA. I mean, the reality is we didn't have FDA...
KELLY: But this is your job, sir. The CDC's in charge of testing.
REDFIELD: Right. Well, and I said - and we developed the test at CDC, probably one of the first tests in the world developed. And we utilized that test. We got it approved through an emergency authorization used by FDA. And when I referred you to the FDA, you could ask them about the timing of which these foreign tests would have been approved for use in the United States.
KELLY: Bottom line, in terms of where we are now, what do you need? How close are we to widespread reliable, robust testing, everybody who needs a test can get one?
REDFIELD: Yeah. Again, the clinical arena in this nation, the clinical support labs, they need to continue to expand their capacity so that there's a robust clinical testing in the United States.
KELLY: And is there a time frame on that?
REDFIELD: Well, I think they continue to grow every day. It continues to increase.
KELLY: I will just note for the record - and then I want to move on to one last question - but know for the record that labs are hobbled by short supplies, not enough swabs, not enough chemical reagents, not enough staff and so forth. But let me turn you to face coverings because the CDC is recommending that we wear them. Some places, LA most prominently, will be requiring people to wear them. Should other local governments follow suit?
REDFIELD: Well, first and foremost, the most important thing that I can say is how important our social distancing guidance is. It's a powerful weapon. And I think embracing that fully is something that we need to do. We learned that, actually, some people are getting infected, but they're not having symptoms. And this may be, you know, 25% or more. That recognition - and then the recognition that if you do become symptomatic you're actually shedding the virus for a day or two before is what led us - if people were going to go into an environment where they weren't going to maintain social distancing, we asked them to protect other people, as if they may be asymptomatically shedding, to wear a face covering.
KELLY: Are you wearing a face covering in public?
REDFIELD: I have my face covering in my pocket right here.
KELLY: Are you telling your family to do so?
REDFIELD: My wife actually made them for me.
KELLY: (Laughter) I wish - she needs to send me some. We're short. I will note, though, I mean, it's - as someone who's watching the White House briefings every night, and you were part of it last night, it does not look like y'all are 6 feet apart, and people's faces aren't covered.
REDFIELD: Well, there are social situations. For example, if you're in an environment where people know their status, there may be a different attempt, even though we still would recommend to try to stay 6 feet apart.
KELLY: What message does it send that the president refuses to wear one?
REDFIELD: You know, again, I think you have to look at the situation. As we recommended, masks are for when you go out to the grocery store or pharmacy, if you're basically in an environment where you don't necessarily know the infectious status. So I will, you know, leave those discussions and - to the president.
KELLY: Dr. Redfield, thank you very much for your time, really appreciate it.
REDFIELD: Thank you very much. God bless.
KELLY: Robert Redfield. He's the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention speaking to us today from the White House.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.