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Alexander on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: What We’re Doing on Testing is Impressive

But says to fully reopen the economy and go back to school in August, we need a “breakthrough” on testing

MARYVILLE, Tenn., May 10, 2020  U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today joined Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to discuss efforts to ramp up COVID-19 testing and his work as chairman of the Senate health committee during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transcript of the interview below:

Chuck Todd: You've been a big proponent of this initiative over at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which you have compared to the show “Shark Tank,” essentially to develop a rapid screening test that can be a game changer, that will allow us to do rapid testing and quarantining of folks, be able to really ramp up testing and contact tracing programs. Dr. Birx on this program has said our solution to testing has to be a breakthrough. You are hoping for a technological breakthrough. Dr Birx is hoping for technological breakthrough, so are the rest of us. What do we do in between? What do we do right now? 

Lamar Alexander: Well, here's what Tennessee is doing and the country is doing. Senator Schumer was nice enough to quote half of what I said at our hearing last week on testing. I said what we're doing is impressive. He left that out, but we are not testing nearly enough. For example, in Tennessee what we're doing right now is the governor is testing every prison, every nursing home, drive-by testing on the weekends, if you want it, free tests at the local public health department, if you want it, especially testing minority and areas where vulnerable people live. And his motto is, “If in doubt get a test.” And so as a result, Tennessee has tested more than most states. It's at about 3.6 percent of the population. He hopes to be at seven percent by the end of May.

Chuck Todd: That is what every state needs. And I guess the question I have is, are you concerned that we have not ramped up testing and contact tracing in this eight-week period as high as we needed to in order to reopen? 

Lamar Alexander: Well, what we've done is very impressive. I mean, according to Johns Hopkins, the United States has tested more than 8 million people. That's twice as many as any country, more per capita than almost all countries, including South Korea. So it's enough to do what we need to do today to reopen, but it's not enough, for example, when 35,000 kids and faculty show up on the University of Tennessee campus in August. That's why we need what Dr. Birx called what Dr. Francis Collins is working on a breakthrough. For example, you might be able to put a lollipop in your mouth with a swab, take a picture of it with your cell phone, and if it lights up if you're positive. Or, you send that swab to a laboratory that's not too far away, and they use what they call gene sequencing machines, which are already there, they could do tens of thousands of tests very quickly. That will lower the risk that there'll be COVID-19 on the campus, and you'll be safe enough to come back and bring your tuition money and your dorm rent. 

Chuck Todd: I want to turn now to a rescue program that you guys now have to design, another rescue program. When you designed the first rescue program, there was a running assumption that it was a, you know, eight, 10, 12 weeks that you were trying to figure out how to essentially allow the economy to hang in purgatory. Now that we're facing the steep unemployment numbers that we're staring at, it looks like the program you designed, while maybe hopeful for a short period, is not nearly enough for a long period. Where do you see Congress going next? 

Lamar Alexander: Well, there's not enough money to help everybody hurt when you shut down the economy. So the only solution is tests, tracing, isolation, treatments and vaccines, so the faster we can do testing is the only solution to this. So we have to reopen the economy. We have to do it carefully. We have to let people go back to work and earn a living. And I don't see us being able to appropriate much more money to help provide a counter to that. 

Chuck Todd: Let me ask you this philosophically about businesses. You can open an economy, but you can't force the return of demand. So, whether you're an airline or you're a restaurant, we know demand is going to be down, and at the same time, they're demand down from no fault of their own. How do you rescue those businesses and how do you rescue those employees?

Lamar Alexander: Number one, a vaccine, and the administration has an amazingly ambitious goal of 100 million vaccines by September, and 300 million by December. I have no idea we can reach that. Number two is treatments. But between now and then, testing. If you're taking a test and you know that you don't have COVID-19, and you know that everybody around you took a test that same day, you're going to have enough confidence to go back to work back to school. 

Chuck Todd: You have made it clear, because in every one of my economic answers, part of your answer has included the need for testing and tracing. You're not alone in this. Are you concerned that the White House doesn't see the testing issue as important as you and others do? 

Lamar Alexander: I've talked to almost everybody on the task force. I've talked to the White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, who helped negotiate what we call the “Shark Tank,” where you throw all these early concept ideas in with Dr. Francis Collins, who heads the National Institutes of Health. I think we're all pushing for as many tests as fast as we can get them. Track one is to accelerate the technologies we already have. But if you want the lollipop that will give you an instant test, you're going to need a new technology, and that's what Dr. Collins' “Shark Tank” is all about. 

Chuck Todd: Final question, are you disappointed that the president decided to go ahead with the Obamacare lawsuit? There was a window where the Justice Department could have pulled out of it. They didn't. He wanted to continue forward. If you undo Obamacare, what's the plan to replace it? 

Lamar Alexander: Well, the answer to your question is yes. I thought the Justice Department’s argument was really flimsy. What they are arguing was that when we voted to get rid of the individual mandate we voted to get rid of Obamacare. I don't know one single senator that thought that.