NOEL KING, HOST:
Large parts of this country are shut down. But could some reopen earlier than others? And if so, which ones? The Trump administration is weighing that question. President Trump sent a letter to state governors yesterday, and he said he's going to put together new guidelines that would categorize counties across the U.S. based on their risk level. To help us better understand what's going on here, we've got NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein and NPR's political correspondent Scott Detrow. Hey, you guys.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Morning.
KING: Scott, let me start with you. The Trump administration says it's looking ahead to guidelines that would shift some decision-making power over to the state level. What do we know about this?
DETROW: Yeah, this was a letter to governors indicating the White House will soon send out guidance setting new guidelines for state and local government on what to look at to loosen or increase social distancing, and stay-at-home orders and the other steps that have been taken to slow the spread of this virus. And speaking yesterday, President Trump once again sounded very impatient.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's going to happen pretty quickly. A lot of progress is made, but we got to go back to work. We may take sections of our country - we may take large sections of our country that aren't so seriously affected, and we may do it that way. But we've got to start the process pretty soon.
DETROW: And the president sounds increasingly eager to get back to normal. At times this week, he sounded frustrated with the very measures his administration is pushing to slow the spread. And at the same time, you have officials on the frontlines - in New York in particular - warning it's going to get a lot worse in the next few weeks; it's nowhere close to cresting, and hospitals could be overwhelmed soon. And also, importantly, a lot of the key information that you would need to get this county-level data is still incomplete.
KING: Including Rob Stein in these questions about testing - right? - we're trying to figure out still in this country where the coronavirus is spreading. You do that by testing. Now, what the president is saying is that the federal government could be able to tell which parts of the country are at low risk, medium risk, high risk. Is that something that is doable right now or in the near future?
STEIN: Yeah, you know, Noel, public health experts say it is encouraging that the administration is talking about coming up with specific criteria to guide people and that it would be based on hard data. But they are kind of scratching their heads on how we get that data anytime soon. Here's Jennifer Nuzzo. She's from Johns Hopkins.
JENNIFER NUZZO: I just don't think there is a way right now for us to even know which counties are high-risk and which counties are low-risk. To be able to say, here is where people do not have to worry about getting the virus - we just don't have that kind of data.
KING: Even though the administration says we've now done more than 500,000 coronavirus tests, that there are more coming, will that get us to where we need to be?
STEIN: It's helping, but, you know, a half a million tests is still just a drop in the bucket for a huge country like the United States. And giving places a false sense of security - that makes public health experts worry that we could just be setting them up to be the next Seattle or New York.
KING: Oh, interesting. OK, so we have one issue, which is that this country's still not doing enough testing. But I understand that you've identified a second issue, which is that there's a problem with some of the testing.
STEIN: Yeah. Well, you know, first, there was the defective test, and then there were not enough tests. Now the problem is, we're running short of the stuff we need to do the flood of testing that is finally becoming available. You know, swabs to collect samples from people's noses, special shipping materials to keep the samples viable until they can get to the labs for the testing and then the chemicals needed to extract and analyze the genetic material from the virus - all that is running short.
And that's snarling the testing, delaying results and forcing the labs to turn people away. And you know, ironically, it's the big ramp-up of testing that is causing this. Here's Joanne Bartkus. She heads the state public health lab in Minnesota.
JOANNE BARTKUS: Think of chocolate chip cookies. You need flour, and sugar and eggs. And we've got enough flour to make, you know, 24 cookies, but the host has just invited 500 people to our party, and now we're going to be short of sugar. And then we get sugar in, and then the eggs are gone. And then we find out that the host has invited the entire, you know, city of Minneapolis to the party, and then we're running out of other supplies as well.
KING: Scott, we've sort of seen this situation throughout President Trump's time in office when he talks about some things that he'd really like to do but that can't happen right now. Now, Rob has just laid out why these things can't happen right in this moment. What is the effect of the president sort of saying what he wants to get done even though it can't get done?
DETROW: Yeah, you're starting to see signs that this is beginning to go the way that nearly every other national issue seems to go, and that's something that's viewed almost entirely through partisan lenses. So even though you do have many Republican governors facing this crisis pushing back and saying, more time is needed; this is not the time to start opening things up, a lot of the president's allies are starting to push for this Easter timeline, and even express skepticism online and on TV about the severity of coronavirus and repeating a thing that the president has said a few times this week, that this is in proportion to the flu or even car crashes.
And the direct response to this push to open fast is that business as usual could make this work - worse on a health level and on an economic level if it happens too soon.
KING: Rob Stein, I want to finish with the last question to you. We know the big headline this morning is that the U.S. is now reporting more cases than China or any other country. Why is that significant?
STEIN: You know, all the testing and other problems that we've had the U.S. has sort of squandered a crucial window of opportunity that the U.S. had to get ahead of the pandemic. And China fought the virus very differently than the U.S. has so far. In addition to massive testing, China deployed legions of health workers to track down and isolate every case and quarantine all the contacts.
KING: And yet still...
STEIN: U.S. health departments haven't been able to do that so far.
KING: Yeah, yeah. NPR's correspondents Rob Stein, Scott Detrow - thanks, guys.
DETROW: Sure thing.
STEIN: You bet, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.