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Inslee criticizes Trump over testing comment, Freedom Foundation questioning of death count

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee sits at his desk and rehearses a speech Tuesday, April 21, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., minutes before going live to address the public on the state's next steps in addressing the coronavirus outbreak. As Washington continues to struggle with getting all the equipment needed to test more possible residents for COVID-19, Gov. Jay Inslee lashed out at comments by President Donald Trump that testing is “overrated.” (Ted S. Warren / AP)

As Washington continues to struggle with getting all the equipment needed to test more residents for COVID-19, Gov. Jay Inslee lashed out at comments by President Donald Trump that testing is “overrated.”

“I just about went through the roof,” Inslee said during a news conference to announce new rules for allowing medical and dental offices to open. “Our ability to reopen the economy depends on testing.”

Trump made the comment about testing while visiting a medical supply company in Pennsylvania last week while contending the nation has the best testing of any country.

“Could be that testing’s, frankly, overrated,” Trump was quoted in news accounts as saying. “But we have the greatest testing in the world.”

Washington has the ability to analyze about 22,000 tests per day, Inslee said, but has been unable to obtain adequate supplies of various elements it needs to conduct those tests, particularly nasal swabs and chemical media. Recently it received boxes of swabs from the federal government labeled as “cotton swabs” which can’t be used for testing, but when state health officials checked, they were told the boxes were mislabeled, although they contained the right type of swabs.

Nasal swabs are typically individually packaged to make sure they are sterile, and these swabs were packaged in bulk. The state is still trying to determine if they can be used, Inslee said.

The Washington Department of Health reported the state had 18,611 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,002 deaths as of Monday. Spokane County had 403 confirmed cases and 30 deaths. Three people in the county were hospitalized due to the virus as of Monday morning, said Dr. Bob Lutz with the Spokane Regional Health District.

The governor criticized a group that was questioning the way Washington reports COVID-19 deaths. The Freedom Foundation – which advocates for limited government and free enterprise solutions – said an analysis of the way the state counts deaths includes people who tested positive for the virus but did not die from it.

About 13% of the recorded deaths may be in that category, said Maxford Nelsen, the foundation’s director of labor policy.

Inslee said he hadn’t seen the foundation’s analysis, but defended the data reported by the state Department of Health as the best information available from local health districts.

“I guess they’re saying ‘That would make it only 887 dead. That’s OK and we should not act responsibly if it’s only 887 people instead of 1,000 people,’” Inslee said. “That’s not a particularly persuasive argument, even if it’s true.”

The state is transparent in the data it collects and uses to make decisions, he said, and some people have “fanned the flames” of conspiracy theories.

“I’ve heard people say things that are from a different planet,” Inslee said. “It’s dangerous to people’s health, they become unwilling to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

But Nelsen said the foundation hasn’t taken a position on any policies the state has established in response to COVID-19. Inslee has said repeatedly the state makes its decisions based on science and data, he noted.

“We’re not in any way trying to downplay the significance of those deaths. We believe every life is valuable,” Nelsen said. “It’s critically important the state get that count right.”

The study indicates the way the state records confirmed COVID-19 deaths has a problem, he said. It cross-references the names and birthdates of people recorded as having the virus with names and birthdates on death records signed by local health officials, and 13% of those death records don’t list COVID-19 as a cause of death.

“We’re not saying we know what the accurate count is,” Nelsen said. Colorado recently revised the way it reports deaths to separate those in which the virus is listed as a cause of death and those where the deceased tested positive for the virus but died from other causes.