Officials promise rollout of coronavirus test sites – but warn that there’ll be bottlenecks

White House briefing
President Donald Trump addresses the press at a White House news briefing. At left is Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services. At right is Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator. (C-Span via YouTube)

Federal public health officials say they’ll start setting up an expanded system of coronavirus test centers this week, but acknowledge that pent-up demand could overwhelm them.

“We will have a spike in our curve,” Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said today at a White House briefing. She asked the general public to give priority to healthcare workers, first responders and high-risk individuals who need testing.

Birx advised hospitals and laboratories to have enough supplies to process what could be tens of thousands of tests nationwide.

“Make sure you have enough pipette tips, pipetters and all the equipment you need to run this laboratory,” she said. “You know what you need. Make sure you have that, and have that available for these tests.”

A lack of testing capability – due to early policy decisions as well as flaws in the first batches of tests provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – seriously hampered U.S. response to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s only been in the past few weeks that more capability has come online in Washington state, one of the hotspots for the outbreak’s spread.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

The new nationwide system is hastily being put together as a public-private partnership that takes advantage of emergency federal approval for new types of high-throughput virus tests produced by Roche and ThermoFisher. The U.S. Public Health Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help state and local agencies set up drive-through or walk-up testing stations in the parking lots of retailers such as Walmart, Walgreens, Target and CVS.

Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said some states may not need much help to set up the stations, while other states will need the “full-meal deal,” including federal personnel to help take nasal swab samples.

Giroir said the hardest-hit states – presumably including Washington as well as New York and California – could see stations start popping up this week. He said 1.9 million test kits should become available this week. The new regimen should make it possible to test “many tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of individuals per week, and maybe even more,” he said.

“This is not make-believe, this is not fantasy,” Giroir said.

More than 2,000 labs across the country will process the tests. The cost of testing is expected to be covered by federal funds, once federal legislation that was approved by the House over the weekend is cleared by the Senate and signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Despite the added capability, Giroir said not everyone will be able to get a test immediately. First priority would be given to healthcare workers and first responders. Priority would also go to people aged 65 or older who have respiratory symptoms and a temperature reading higher than 99.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

“I’m not going to say that the lab testing issue is over, because it’s not,” he said. “It’s entering the next phase.”

Vice President Mike Pence said the White House is working with Google and other tech companies – including Amazon and Facebook – on online resources to support the heightened response. Such resources would include a website that asks users about symptoms that indicate a test would be warranted. “In the days ahead, we look forward to that same website being able to direct people to the nearest community center or drive-through center that’s available,” Pence said.

Birx said results from the test would be reported back to patients and their doctors, and a version of the results with personal information stripped out would be sent onward to state and local governments for use in monitoring the outbreak.

More than 3,200 confirmed coronavirus cases have been recorded in the U.S. so far, according to figures maintained by Johns Hopkins University. But epidemiologists say tens of thousands of Americans are likely to have been infected, with most of them unaware that they’re passing on the virus.

Some people – particularly in their 60s or older, especially if they have underlying health problems – experience life-threatening symptoms. But others – particularly in their 20s or younger – are more likely to experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Today’s briefing didn’t directly address the phenomenon of asymptomatic or cryptic transmission and its implications for testing strategies.

In other developments:

  • Trump touted the Federal Reserve’s actions to stimulate the economy by cutting its benchmark interest rate to zero percent and purchasing $700 billion worth of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. “The market should be very thrilled,” he said. But after the move was announced, the Dow Jones futures index fell more than 1,000 points, triggering trading limits.
  • Acting Homeland Security Chad Wolf acknowledged that the crush of travelers returning from Europe has put a strain on screening systems at U.S. airports, particularly at O’Hare in Chicago. Problems at O’Hare sparked harsh criticism overnight, including from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “We have course-corrected,” said Wolf, who reported that the average wait time for returning passengers was down to 30 minutes.
  • Wolf was asked about potential limitations on domestic travel from coronavirus hotspots. “We continue to look at all options,” he said.
  • Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, praised the federal government’s moves to increased testing – but urged the general public to continue taking action to slow the spread of the virus. “The worst is yet ahead for us,” he said. When asked whether officials might at some point recommend closing down restaurants and bars, Fauci answered, “That could be, absolutely.”
  • In response to questions about the availability of medical supplies, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said public officials were making use of a strategic stockpile that includes “thousands and thousands of ventilators.” Fauci told CNN that the stockpile amounts to 12,700 ventilators, which would not be enough for the worst-case scenario. “We will be able hopefully to backfill the stockpile as best as we can,” Fauci said.
  • Today the CDC issued fresh recommendations for countering the outbreak – including a call for the cancellation or postponement of in-person events that consist of 50 or more people. The CDC says its recommendation on large-group gatherings will be in effect for the next eight weeks, but does not apply to the day-to-day operation of organizations such as schools, higher-learning institutions or businesses.

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