Trump Antigen Testing Fail; COVID Stimulus Waste; Politicians vs Public Health

Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.

Trump’s Antigen Testing Fail

Eschewing evidence, the White House has favored antigen testing for COVID-19 over the more reliable PCR tests, Kaiser Health News reported, citing one potential reason for the disease outbreak there.

Antigen tests do not need to be processed in traditional labs and yield results more quickly, making them more favorable to the Trump administration. But BinaxNOW, the new antigen test now used in the White House, has not been independently verified for accuracy and reliability. BinaxNOW received an FDA emergency use authorization in August.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently inked a $760-million contract with Abbott, which makes BinaxNOW, to distribute 150 million tests to places including historically black colleges and universities, state governors (to help them potentially reopen schools), and nursing homes. The Big Ten football conference also decided to play this fall — after originally punting on the season — in part because of the availability of the more rapid antigen tests, “following Trump’s political pressure,” KHN reported.

The White House does not report antigen test results to the Washington, D.C., health department — “a potential violation of federal law under the CARES Act, which says any institution performing tests to diagnose COVID-19 must report all results to local or state public health departments,” the article stated.

Why the COVID Stimulus Was a ‘Waste’

Much of the $4 trillion handed out by the federal government during the pandemic went to large companies that didn’t need the help, rather than struggling medical practices, public health departments, and other healthcare entities, according to a Washington Post analysis.

“The legislation bestowed billions in benefits on companies and wealthy individuals largely unscathed by the pandemic, leaving some local public health efforts struggling for money to conduct testing and other prevention efforts,” according to the analysis, which was based on data from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

More than half of the aid ($2.3 trillion) went to businesses that weren’t required to show that they were hurt by the pandemic, or that they kept workers on the job, the Post reported.

Only $25 billion was earmarked for coronavirus testing via the most recent relief bill on April 24. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer and bipartisan groups of experts have called for $100 billion or more for testing.

Many public companies received CARES Act tax breaks, including Tenet Healthcare, as did companies unaffected by the pandemic. Medical equipment maker Owens & Minor, for example, plans to claim $13 million in tax breaks while personal protective equipment demand has sent its stock price soaring.

The healthcare and social services sector received 12.9% of the $670 billion Paycheck Protection Program loans while accounting for 10% of job losses. Construction and manufacturing, by comparison, received 12.4% and 10.3%, while accounting for just 4.7% and 6.4% of job losses, respectively.

By following traditional methods of propping up businesses instead of addressing the root cause of a public health crisis, economists told the Post that the government’s attempt to mitigate the recession has failed.

“This is why the stimulus money was a waste: It got people back out there, but it also increased the rate of spread of the virus,” Romer said. “It was really totally ineffective to stimulate the economy without implementing measures to restrain the spread of the virus.”

Political Elite Undermine Public Health

America’s politicians are undermining efforts to contain the pandemic by acting as if public health guidelines do not apply to them, STAT reported.

“It is SO frustrating to have well-known elected officials disregarding public health guidance. It does not model the behavior we want to see in the public or that we expect of them,” a state public health official wrote in an email.

It’s not just President Trump; other Republican leaders have flouted public health guidelines such as social distancing and wearing a mask in public. Vice President Mike Pence has not curtailed public activities despite sitting near at least two lawmakers at the Sept. 26 White House Rose Garden ceremony who have since tested positive for COVID-19. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) attended a public event Friday night after being tested — and just before learning he was positive.

Public health experts are also critical of Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden for continuing to campaign in public after standing in the same room as Trump during last week’s presidential debate, held just two days before Trump announced he tested positive.

Besides jeopardizing the health of others, these politicians are sending destructive messages to Americans about the pandemic, experts said. For instance, Johnson still opposes Wisconsin’s mandatory mask mandate.

“The bottom line is that when our leaders undermine public health messaging by not doing it themselves, they send a very clear signal to the American people that this stuff is actually not that important,” said Ashish Jha, MD, MPH, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “I think that’s the single biggest reason we are at 7.5 million [Americans] infected and 210,000 deaths.”

  • Ryan Basen reports for MedPage‚Äôs enterprise & investigative team. He has worked as a journalist for more than a decade, earning national and state honors for his investigative work. He often writes about issues concerning the practice and business of medicine. Follow

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