President Donald Trump said Tuesday the U.S. will "very soon" run 5 million coronavirus tests per day, even as the lack of testing remains an obstacle for many states anxious to reopen for business.
"We'll increase it, and it'll increase it by much more than that in the very near future," Trump said when a reporter asked if he's confident the U.S. will reach 5 million tests per day, as some health experts say would be required to "reopen" the country.
Speaking to the press the following day, Trump denied ever having said there would be 5 million tests per day, but he added that he does believe there will, in fact, be five million tests per day.
"Somebody came out with a study of 5 million people. Do I think we will? I think we will, but I never said it," Trump claimed during an event at the White House on Wednesday. "Somebody started throwing around 5 million. I didn't say 5 million," the president insisted, adding, "Well, we will be there. But I didn't say it. I didn't say it."
The U.S. is currently nowhere near conducting 5 million tests a day, and there is skepticism within the Trump administration itself about whether the country could hit that goal. Adm. Brett Giroir, who is running the administration's testing response, told Time magazine in an interview Tuesday morning, before Trump's remarks, that "there is absolutely no way on Earth, on this planet or any other planet, that we can do 20 million tests a day, or even 5 million tests a day."
The most tests the nation has run on a single day was 314,182 on April 22, according to data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project. The U.S. has run just 5.7 million total Covid-19 tests since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the volunteer project designed to track testing data launched last month by The Atlantic.
That puts the nation woefully behind where its testing capacity needs to be. At the average rate of around 157,000 tests run a day in April, according to the project, it would take almost 6 years to test everyone in the U.S. — just once. Health-care workers and other first responders need to be tested often. New York state is requiring private companies that want to bring their employees back to work to test them frequently.
Trump assured reporters "we're going to be there very soon." He said he didn't have the exact data off the top of his head, but "if you look at the numbers, it could be that we're getting very close."
Trump has set more modest testing goals in the recent past. A week earlier, he and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to work toward testing 40,000 people each day across the state – roughly double the current rate. "It's a very aggressive goal," Cuomo said at the time.
New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. and the nation's fourth-most populated state, has done far more testing than any other. If every state in the country conducted 40,000 tests daily, that would total 2 million tests per day – far below the 5 million that Trump said he will exceed in the "very near future."
State officials including Cuomo have previously lamented shortages of supplies necessary to ramp up testing, including the test kits themselves, swabs and reagents, which are chemicals needed to analyze tests. Due to scarcity, cities such as New York City still have to prioritize testing for first responders and patients in the hospital, Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week. Limited testing means health officials can't monitor the spread of the virus throughout the general population.
The capacity to test broadly throughout the population for Covid-19 will be key to preventing a resurgence of the virus as states ease restrictions and reopen businesses, public health specialists and state officials have repeatedly said.
The White House's official testing data shows that 5.1 million Americans have been tested as of Monday, up from 3.3 million on April 15, according to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
"The United States has done double the number of tests of any country in the world," White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. "We have exceeded all expectations and continue to lead the world in testing capacity as we assist governors in ensuring they have the capacity to reopen their states in a safe manner."
McEnany did not comment whether the U.S. would soon be able to run 5 million tests a day.
Trump's critics have zeroed in on the nationwide shortages of effective coronavirus tests, testing supplies and labs able to process test results as a central failure of the federal government's response to the deadly pandemic. Trump has rejected this criticism.
"States, not the Federal Government, should be doing the Testing," he said in a tweet last week.
On Monday, the administration released a new testing "blueprint" that described what it called a "partnership" between states, the federal government and the private sector. The so-called partnership featured a very limited role for the federal government, however, and left the lion's share of responsibility for funding, designing and executing a coronavirus testing plans to individual states.
The administration has previously pinned overly optimistic testing estimates on states' under-utilization of their capacity to actually run tests.
Giroir, who is assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, had previously predicted the U.S. would run 27 million tests by the end of March. On April 20, Giroir explained that there were already 40 million tests "in the marketplace" but that labs were not processing the tests at full capacity because of supplies shortages and other issues.
Leaders of retail companies such as CVS Health, Walgreens, Walmart, Rite Aid, Kroger and others joined Trump Monday to discuss their efforts to boost the country's testing capacity. The companies laid out their plans to supply new testing sites and increase their efficiency, but some cautioned their timing and ability to ramp up will depend on having adequate supplies and lab capacity.
Walgreens, for example, did not announce a timetable for its expansion of Covid-19 testing, saying in a news release that "the scale and timing of the overall testing expansion is dependent on the availability of tests and overall lab capacity."
— CNBC's Melissa Repko contributed to this report.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the president's comments on Wednesday.