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How the U.S. can improve its testing nationwide

Sonal Shah, Georgetown University Professor, joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman and Akiko Fujita to discuss the presidential candidates’ approaches to the coronavirus, the importance of widespread, serial testing in reopening the economy, and why vaccines are not the only answer.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Both President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, making their closing arguments, criss-crossing across some key swing states today. Clearly in focus, the economy as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

Let's bring in Sonal Shah. She's a professor at Georgetown University, also an economic policy advisor to Joe Biden. She joins us from one of those battleground states, Texas, today. Sonal, it's great to have you on today.

SONAL SHAH: Akiko, it's great to be here. Thanks.

AKIKO FUJITA: You know, we talk about as if everybody's going to go out and vote tomorrow. Well, we've already got more than 90 million people who have cast their ballots. There's a lot of those who are still undecided, maybe very-- a small sliver, still. But I'm curious, as somebody who has been very supportive of Joe Biden, who's advised the former vice president, what is your final pitch to those who are saying, look, I'm not quite sure if he is the one to lead us out of this pandemic?

SONAL SHAH: Well, two things-- one, Joe Biden has led us out of pandemics before. He was in charge of the Ebola crisis. He actually managed a crisis for President Obama, actually knows how to do this and has been through many crises in his life and has done it extraordinarily well. He is the leader we need. He led us out of the financial crisis in 2009, so I think keeping that in mind.

And the second thing is we do need character back in this country. We should want the president to represent what we want the country to be. And Joe Biden represents that. He is the character of the president that we need.

And he's also working to bring the country together. He's not fighting for the red states or the blue states. He's actually fighting for all of the United States.

ZACK GUZMAN: Professor, I know you're in Texas right now. And when we talk about a state that might not be a swing state historically but now is, I wonder how much of it is tied to kind of the management or mismanagement on the COVID front? You're talking about testing being a key piece of this.

And, right now, I mean, in El Paso, you see what's playing out there. Right now, they're building makeshift morgues because, right now, the body count is too quick. They can't keep pace with it. And testing has slowed down considerably in that city. Talk to me about how important that is in terms of the recovery we're seeing play out and trying to avoid a return to shutdown that's playing out right now in Europe.

SONAL SHAH: Zack, this is a great question. We should have been doing testing from day one. Like, we knew Asia has already been doing this. Korea has been doing this. Japan's been doing this. Taiwan has been doing this.

And we can learn from that. They have been testing. And, in Texas, our governor doesn't even take masks seriously nor does he take testing seriously. So you have cities and counties trying to address the crisis, but then you have the governor who is not taking it seriously, much like the president. And it matters that we do testing because it allows us to know who has it.

But not only testing, we also have to do contact tracing. And that matters to know, where have people been? Where did the-- where could the virus have come from? This is huge, and testing is huge. And, if we don't do the testing appropriately, we can't just reopen without the testing. So, if we want to reopen safely, let's get testing done.

ZACK GUZMAN: And you mentioned Governor Abbott there and kind of that battle going on at the city level in Texas as well as the state level. But there's another question at the federal level and what a Joe Biden presidency might bring in terms of clarity on, I guess, rules around all this as well. How important does that factor in here when we think about the response, starting from the top down versus all of the counties and cities having to struggle with this and working with the state and federal level above?

SONAL SHAH: So the federal level sets the standards. What is the standard of what everybody should be doing? What is it that-- data that should be reported back so we have consistent data across the board?

The federal also gives directions to airports. It gives direction to markets. It gives direction to everybody on what they should and could be doing.

Right now, what you have is every company having to figure out what to do. You've got every city trying to figure out what to do. You've got every state, and they're like just follow CDC guidelines. But, if there's no-- guidelines alone aren't enough. You need direction. And that's what the Federal government offers.

So, again, if we go back to Ebola and what Vice President Biden did then is he set clear standards for every city, state, county government as well as federal government on what they should be doing and how to test for that. So we were able to manage a crisis before it even came to our shores.

AKIKO FUJITA: When you look at where things stand right now, we're looking at more than 98,000 coronavirus cases in a single day on Friday, a record here. Over in Europe, whether it's France, Germany, and now the UK, they're looking at lockdowns. The federal level and the local level here in the US, they've made it pretty clear that another national lockdown is not going to happen.

But I'm curious how you're looking at this from an economic standpoint. Inevitably, those who are looking at these numbers are going to say, maybe I don't quite feel comfortable going out to these restaurants. Maybe I'm not feeling comfortable flying again.

SONAL SHAH: Yeah, Akiko, that's a great question. So let me just start with I think one of the things that we could be doing more is testing. And, right now, if you want to get a test, you have to have coronavirus symptoms or to have been around somebody. We should be doing constant testing without having to go through symptoms and say, we know who has it, who doesn't have it, and people can be tested fairly easily.

That's important for us to do. We could have ramped up production and continue to ramp up production, even now if we wanted to, for testing and make it available to every state. So that matters. We don't-- we should not have to shut down the economy.

Again, I say let's look at Asia. Let's look at Taiwan. Let's look at South Korea. And let's look at Japan.

They have, and they've continued to open up their economy. And they're managing through testing. They're managing to know where the cases are and what to do.

So, again, testing matters. Making sure we have enough tests matters. Making sure states have the data that they need. And we do contact tracing. But also what matters is we can reopen our economy safely with clear guidelines.

AKIKO FUJITA: Sonal Shah, the professor at Georgetown University and also economic policy advisor to Joe Biden. It's good to talk to you, really appreciate your time today.

SONAL SHAH: Akiko, thank you so much. Take care.