WASHINGTON - The United States is struggling to test enough people to track and control the spread of
the novel coronavirus, a crucial first step to reopening parts of the economy, which President Donald Trump is pushing to do by May 1.
Trump on Thursday released a plan to ease business restrictions that hinges on a downward trajectory of positive tests.
But more than a month after he declared, "Anybody who wants a test, can get a test,” the reality on the ground has been much different. People report being unable to get tested and labs. Public officials say critical supply shortages are making it impossible to increase testing to the levels that experts say is necessary to keep the virus in check.
“There’s just so many inefficiencies and problems with the way that testing currently happens across this country,” said Dr. Meghan Ranney, an emergency doctor and associate professor at Brown University.
Trump’s plan calls for “sentinel surveillance sites” that would screen for the virus in high-risk populations of people without symptoms.
The plan also pushes responsibility for testing onto states.
“You know, the federal government shouldn’t be forced to go and do everything,” Trump told reporters Thursday.
This week, governors and medical groups called on the Trump administration to address shortages of swabs, protective gear and highly specialized laboratory chemicals needed to analyze test results. Hospitals and state health departments report scouring the globe to secure orders, competing against each other and their peers abroad, a system that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., described as “mayhem.”
“The federal government cannot wipe their hands of this and say, oh the states are responsible for testing,” Cuomo said Friday.
Trump has denied that the U.S. has fallen short.Vice President Mike Pence told reporters Monday that if governors “would simply activate” underused high-capacity testing machines, "we could double the amount of testing in the US literally overnight.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo, D-R.I., said that is not the problem in her state. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas, whose state has one of the lowest per capita testing rates in the country, told CNN it has been difficult to get testing supplies. Gov. Jim Justice, R-W.Va., a Trump ally, said testing needs to be stepped up before he can lift restrictions.
Jennifer Rodriguez, a pharmacy technician in California, said she was sent home by her employer last week after coming down with symptoms. Her company wouldn’t test her and she spent hours on the phone trying to find a place that would, she said.
The San Luis Obispo County health department can only test 50 samples per day, and a spokeswoman said those tests are reserved for people who are hospitalized, first responders and those who have had contact with people who tested positive. Rodriguez didn’t qualify.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
Lab officials and health experts around the country told The Associated Press that supply shortages have prompted them to limit who can be tested. That can leave out people who have symptoms but aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized.
Ed Thornborrow, medical director of the University of California at San Francisco Clinical Microbiology Laboratory, said he wants to run 3,000 tests per day, but he can only do 100 to 250 now, because he lacks enough nasal swabs. He works constantly to find more.
“That’s what I spend most of my time on these days,” he said.
Meghan Delaney, chief of pathology and lab medicine at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, says shortages of chemicals known as reagents are constraining how many tests her lab can perform.
Vendors, in response, are restricting what hospitals can buy, said Dr. Robin Patel of the Mayo Clinic’s infectious disease laboratory.
“It’s a little bit like rationing,” Patel said.
For weeks, Trump has promoted a 15-minute test developed by Abbott Laboratories as a “game changer.” Federal officials initially distributed 15 machines to public health labs in each of the states and U.S. territories, along with 250 to the Indian Health Service. Alaska received 50.
But governors say they didn’t get enough cartridges that work with Abbott's machine to run large numbers of the tests.
Federal health officials declined to say how many cartridges were initially sent to states, but said more will be available as Abbott increases production. The company says it is producing 50,000 cartridges daily.
The U.S. is currently testing roughly 145,000 people daily, for a total of 3.4 million results reported, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project. Experts say capacity needs to be much higher, in part to repeatedly test essential workers, and to isolate those who test positive and track down their close contacts to prevent new outbreaks.
“We still probably need to be doing three times more testing than we’re doing now,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard. “I don’t see America getting by anytime soon with 100,000 to 150,000 tests.”