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As Testing Ramps Up, Some States May Still Be Able To Contain Coronavirus

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, the White House criticized the media for portraying the coronavirus outbreak as worse than it actually is. President Trump's Task Force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, encouraged people to look beyond urban hotspots where the number of positive cases is rising rapidly. She said 19 states have reported much lower infection rates.

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DEBORAH BIRX: So that's almost 40% of the country with extraordinarily low numbers.

SIMON: But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, health officials in some of those states see things differently.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Coronavirus testing is increasing substantially across the country. Dr. Anthony Fauci with the National Institutes of Health predicts, by next week, we'll be testing up to a million people. He says that could allow rural states with the lowest infection rates to contain the virus' spread and get ahead of what's happening in places like New York or California.

ANTHONY FAUCI: There are regions of the country where, rather than shut down, we should be doing the kind of containment, which is seeking out, identifying, testing, contact tracing and isolating.

SIEGLER: But that's still not possible in states like Wyoming, which has one of the lowest reported infection rates in the U.S. State health officer Alexia Harrist says they still don't have enough tests to comprehensively find and trace every case and isolate everyone who needs to be quarantined.

ALEXIA HARRIST: But as testing capacity continues to ramp up - and we hope that it will continue to do so in the upcoming weeks - that will give us a better opportunity to really try to identify as many people as we can and implement those containment strategies. But we're not quite there yet, I would say.

SIEGLER: Wyoming, with a population of just under 600,000 people, is testing about 100 people a day. But Harrist says the state still doesn't have the capacity to know exactly what its infection rate is or how far behind they might be.

HARRIST: I think certainly that there could come a point where there are so many cases that it's just not possible to identify, interview and identify contacts for every case.

SIEGLER: Harrist says her department is still having to prioritize high-risk populations and essential health care workers. So Wyoming has implemented aggressive social distancing rules and shut down most businesses until at least April 17, hoping that will buy them time until comprehensive testing is available.

Neighboring Montana also has one of the lowest reported case counts in the country. But on the same day the White House was trying to stay upbeat that some more rural states could still contain COVID-19, Governor Steve Bullock issued an order for the state's 1 million residents to stay at home.

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STEVE BULLOCK: And I'd rather be accused of overreacting than have a health care system overwhelmed and unable to help are most at-risk Montanans when they need it the most.

SIEGLER: Bullock said they're testing up to 400 people a day now but still can't test as many as they'd like.

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BULLOCK: Do I think that we would get to the point where every Montanan was tested? Candidly, we don't have the supplies.

SIEGLER: Rural states are hopeful those supplies will arrive soon. Yet there's little indication for when they'll have the testing capacity the White House suggests they already have. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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