Coronavirus Testing Begins To Ramp Up Across The Country

Mar 18, 2020
Originally published on March 18, 2020 7:53 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Meanwhile, the Trump administration keeps scrambling to try and finally make enough coronavirus testing kits available. But as NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein reports, some public health experts still have a lot of big questions and concerns.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Testing is finally starting to ramp up around the country. Here's Vice President Mike Pence at the latest White House briefing.

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MIKE PENCE: It's important the American people understand that testing is happening all over the country.

STEIN: So far, more than 58,000 tests have been done, and thousands more are being done each week by federal and state labs, hospitals, private companies. Even some drive-through testing sites are slowly starting to open. Here's Brett Giroir, who's in charge of testing for the White House.

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BRETT GIROIR: These are blossoming all over the country. We expect, over the next few days, to begin setting up 47 of these in approximately 12 states.

STEIN: But they're still not nearly enough testing. Here's Michael Mina from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

MICHAEL MINA: The testing capacity remains extraordinarily limited compared to where we should be. And in many ways, I would say we are absolutely flying blind at the moment.

STEIN: So the federal government is trying to help. For one thing, the Food and Drug Administration is now letting states get their own testing systems going. Here's FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

STEPHEN HAHN: States can now take responsibility for overseeing tests developed and used by laboratories in their states.

STEIN: But not everyone thinks that's really going to help much.

ERIC BLANK: That's really not very practical.

STEIN: Eric Blank is with the Association of Public Health Laboratories. He says most states don't have the legal authority, expertise or staff to set up their own testing systems.

BLANK: As a practical matter, not all our states, particularly in the midst of response, are in a position to really take that role, especially while they are tied up with response. They don't have resources to be really - do that.

STEIN: The FDA also says private companies could start selling their tests before they've even finished getting reviewed by federal regulators. But that makes Blank really nervous.

BLANK: The danger is you're going to get the wrong results. I mean, you could get false positives - in other words, telling people that they're positive when they really aren't. But even worse, the problem of false negatives. So you're telling somebody, oh, you're OK. It's negative. You can go your way - when, in fact, they have the novel coronavirus. Then you got somebody with the virus that's in the community, and they don't know it.

STEIN: And so they could end up spreading it to more people. Now, the companies making these tests say they'll make sure they're accurate. Here's Julie Khani from the American Clinical Laboratory Association.

JULIE KHANI: It's not just flipping a switch. We take that responsibility very seriously. And labs are doing all that they can to make sure that we have the accurate and reliable testing that physicians and patients can count on.

STEIN: But some worry that as testing does expand, we might hit another problem - a shortage of what's needed to do those tests, the chemical ingredients for the tests, trained workers to take and process the samples. Here's Eric Blank again from the public health labs association.

BLANK: That supply chain is now strained. The swabs used for the nasal swabs are in short supply. Extraction kits and extraction buffers are in short supply almost to a critical point.

STEIN: So the nation's coronavirus testing woes appear to be far from over.

Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.