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White House touts coronavirus testing capacity in face of criticism

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Friday rejected criticism that the country has not ramped up its testing capacity enough to begin safely reopening state economies shuttered to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The remarks came a day after President Donald Trump unveiled new guidelines for U.S. states to emerge from the shutdown in a staggered, three-phase approach that relies on robust testing capabilities.

“We believe today that we have the capacity in the United States to do a sufficient amount of testing for states to move into phase one in the time and manner that they deem appropriate,” Vice President Mike Pence said at the daily White House briefing.

Despite mounting coronavirus deaths, Trump has been under pressure to reopen the economy, as businesses closures have driven 22 million Americans to seek unemployment benefits and fueled protests in some states by demonstrators calling for the lockdowns to be lifted.

Trump, who hoped to base his campaign for reelection in November on a strong economy, on Friday reiterated his insistence that the burden was on states to boost testing, saying: “It’s going to be up to the states to use that capability.”

“The states have local points where they can go and the governor can call the mayors and the mayors can call representatives and everything is perfect and that’s the way it should work and always should work,” Trump said.

Governors and lawmakers have pushed back, arguing that testing should be more widespread and that the federal government should continue to pitch in, before they can begin to think about reopening.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said earlier on Friday that he needed federal help to ramp up testing and reopen his state’s economy, criticizing the Trump administration for failing to support expanded testing or provide enough funding to states.

“Is there any funding so I can do these things that you want us to do? ‘No’,” Cuomo told a daily briefing. “That is passing the buck without passing the bucks.”

According to the new federal guidelines, states must have “robust testing” programs in place for at-risk healthcare workers before reopening.

Even as some states have seen a decline in new cases and deaths, the outbreak has sickened nearly 700,000 people and killed more than 35,000 people in the United States alone.

Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases expert, said on Friday that Senate Democrats asked a lot of reasonable questions in a call earlier in the day including whether there were enough tests to go through this first phase.

Fauci acknowledged there are still areas to improve on testing, but a lot of the issues have been corrected or will be corrected. “We have to figure out how do we close that gap,” he said.

“Testing is a part - an important part - of a multifaceted way that we are going to control and ultimately end this outbreak ... But the emphasis that we’ve been hearing is essentially ‘Testing is everything.’ And it isn’t,” he added.

Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional Reporting by Jeff Mason, Eric Beech, Humeyra Pamuk and Mohammad Zargham; Writing by Alexandra Alper and Makini Brice; Editing by Sandra Maler and Daniel Wallis

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