Coronavirus Test Kits Aren’t Keeping Up With Surging U.S. Demand

Date: Friday, March 6, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Some of the hardest-hit places in the country say they can’t get enough coronavirus tests, though the federal government has ramped up shipments

States on the front lines of the coronavirus fight are complaining about the availability of test kits, exposing strains in the nation’s battle to contain the epidemic.

New York City’s deputy mayor for health, Raul Perea-Henze, struck an urgent tone in a letter Friday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying the test kits provided to the city don’t meet its needs.

“Slow federal action on this matter has impeded our ability to beat back this epidemic,” he wrote.

As of noon Friday, 94 people had been tested in New York City, according to the city’s health website. Nearly 2,800 are in quarantine, officials said, and the city needs to be able to test hundreds a day.

A representative of the CDC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The CDC is now shipping hundreds of test kits. Some public health labs and private lab companies have also rolled out their own test kits. Large commercial lab companies including LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics Inc. are launching coronavirus testing services.

That has increased the capacity to test samples to thousands of people a day, a marked improvement from the relative few the CDC was able to evaluate at its Atlanta laboratories while it tried to work out the kinks in a test it had developed.

Yet the improvement isn’t enough, public-health experts and government officials say, especially after the CDC recently broadened the criteria for testing to anyone who shows signs or symptoms, had traveled to a country with an outbreak or come into contact with a confirmed case.

Public health officials in King County, Wash., have called testing capacity inadequate in the state, where most of the U.S. coronavirus deaths have taken place.

“We’ve been waiting for an increase of testing capacity in our community. It has been a tremendous strain for public health to have to triage those tests,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine at a Friday briefing.

Officials in Washington state were hopeful for more testing capacity soon, though not necessarily from the federal government.

But even as New York City said it didn’t have enough, New York state officials said the state has enough test kits for the moment.

The state Department of Health said it had about 3,000 test kits available, which it considered to be an “ample supply,” a spokesman said. Roughly 300 tests have been conducted at the state’s Wadsworth lab since Sunday, the spokesman said. He added that the state could conduct tests on samples from New York City.

The state can test about 500 samples a day, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a briefing Friday, and it hopes to increase its capacity to 1,000 samples a day. The bottleneck was laboratory capacity and not test kits, Mr. Cuomo said.

About 4,000 people in New York state are in quarantine and being monitored for symptoms of the virus, state officials said Friday. The number of people in the state with the infection rose to 44 on Friday, officials said. The number was 22 on Thursday.

The goal in the U.S. is to get to a point where people with symptoms can be tested quickly, but that has proven to be a big challenge.

“We are not at that point now,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said at a briefing Friday on Capitol Hill. “We don’t have the bandwidth to do that now.”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said Friday at a press conference that as of Thursday the CDC had shipped out supplies for about 900,000 tests and another 200,000 are expected to be shipped Saturday. Testing requires more than one specimen per patient, so the number of people who could be tested with those supplies is fewer.

“We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward,” acknowledged Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the administration’s response to the outbreak, during a visit to a 3M Co. facility in Minnesota on Thursday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Friday the federal government has provided Washington and California, states with some of the highest number of cases, with all the tests they requested. The CDC has shipped tests capable of testing as many as 75,000 people to public-health labs, and as many as four million tests could be ready by next week.

“The production and shipping of tests that we’ve talked about all week is completely on schedule,” Mr. Azar said at the White House.

Before this week, few public-health laboratories were able to conduct tests. The CDC halted shipments of a test it had developed, because the test was malfunctioning. And the FDA hadn’t given laboratories authority to develop, validate and use their own tests.

Tests have come online since then because the CDC dropped a malfunctioning component and the FDA streamlined its authorization process.

Public-health labs have received hundreds of CDC test kits in the past few days, and thousands more are expected, said Scott Becker, chief executive of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which represents about 150 state and local public-health labs.

Each kit can perform tests on specimens for hundreds of patients. About 69 public-health labs in the U.S. had on-site testing capacity as of Friday, with more expected over the weekend, up from eight a week ago, Mr. Becker said. He expects the labs will soon have capacity for testing about 10,000 people a day across the U.S.

 

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