CDC tested only 77 people this week; coronavirus testing slow around the nation

WASHINGTON — Despite insistent promises from the Trump administration, coronavirus testing in the United States appears to be proceeding with a marked lack of urgency. An examination of state and federal records by Yahoo News finds that American states are, on average, testing fewer than 100 people per day — while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tested fewer than 100 people total in the first two days of this week.

Meanwhile, a single private lab is performing tests, according to a trade group representing such facilities. The administration has repeatedly said that private enterprise would play a critical role in making sure that all Americans who need a coronavirus test receive one.

U.S. officials on Tuesday were faced with an onslaught of questions from members of Congress, amid reports of South Korea’s drive-through coronavirus testing locations.

“This is not a problem we can test our way out of,” said Stephen Redd, MD, head of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, in testimony on Wednesday. It was an admission that, in a nation of 320 million, testing every person will be impossible.

Redd also revealed in his testimony that the total number of people tested for the coronavirus by the CDC was 1,784. That means that, as of Wednesday morning, the CDC had tested only 77 people for the coronavirus since Sunday. According to a CDC spokesman, the number that had been tested as of Sunday was 1,707.

A medical technologist tests a respiratory panel at Northwell Health Labs, where the same test will be used on the COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, after being authorized to begin semi-automated testing by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Lake Success, New York, U.S., March 11, 2020.   (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
A medical technologist tests a respiratory panel at Northwell Health Labs in Lake Success, N.Y., where the same test will be used on COVID-19. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Speaking at a different hearing on Wednesday, CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said public health labs — that is, labs run by individual states — were ready to “test up to 75,000 people,” presumably because they had received test kits from the CDC.

Redfield also said on Wednesday morning that 75 public labs were ready to perform tests across the United States. In fact, the number is even higher — 81, according to Michelle Forman, a spokesperson for the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Those labs each have the capacity to perform 100 tests per day.

So far, however, only 7,617 people have been tested in state laboratories, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a database that updates the test statistics from states and the federal government. (Some of those statistics don’t include negative tests, which means the number tested could be higher.) On Tuesday, the 50 states cumulatively had tested only 2,728 people, meaning an average of 55 people tested per state.

Administration officials have repeatedly said that private industry would step in and meet the deficit. But it was because of an administration directive that private laboratories could not prepare for a coronavirus surge until earlier this month. “We just haven’t been getting information about how to get those kits,” Mark Birenbaum of the National Independent Laboratory Association told Yahoo News last week.

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks during a House Oversight Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
CDC Director Robert Redfield at a House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As a result, Birenbaum said in a subsequent conversation, only a single private lab in the United States is performing coronavirus tests. He said he was aware of “one that will begin testing on March 16, and seven to 10 that are still setting up.” He later added that the total number of labs preparing to test for the coronavirus was actually 15.

More testing will inevitably reveal more coronavirus cases. The United States now has 1,300 cases, with 38 deaths. Trump admitted last Friday that he was hesitant to have coronavirus-infected passengers disembark the Grand Princess cruise ship on U.S. shores because, as he explained, “I like the numbers being where they are.”

The numbers where they are as of today are not especially troubling, but likely not because the coronavirus has failed to take hold. “Low case counts so far may reflect not an absence of the pathogen but a woeful lack of testing,” explained former Department of Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem in an article for the Atlantic.

That could lull Americans into a false sense of security about the severity of the disease, and the disruptions that the disease could cause. “If Americans conclude that life will continue mostly as normal,” Kayyem writes, “they may be wrong.”

This article has been updated with the correct number of tests that public labs can administer when running at full capacity. That number is 100, not 1,000.


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