Trump seeks to broaden virus testing; confusion persists

By Matthew Perrone and Mike Stobbe - Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration scrambled Friday to broaden testing for the coronavirus with a flurry of new measures, and public confusion persisted over who should be tested and how to get checked for the disease.

Federal officials announced a new “testing czar,” emergency approval of a new high-volume testing system and a hotline for resource-stretched labs.

Those moves came a day after one of the government’s top health officials called the initial testing effort “a failing” and health care professionals, politicians and patients across the country complained about lack of access to testing in the U.S.

Only last week, President Donald Trump told Americans that “anybody who wants a test can get a test.” Vice President Mike Pence, who’s leading a coronavirus task force, and other officials later acknowledged that they are still trying to achieve widespread access.

But it’s become clear that testing is being squeezed by the limited number of labs running the COVID-19 tests and confusion among health care workers over who can be tested.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells people to seek testing if they have certain symptoms of the flu-like illness caused by the coronavirus – fever, cough and trouble breathing – and if they have traveled recently to a coronavirus outbreak area or have been in close contact with someone who’s been infected.

Ultimately, it’s up to the doctor to decide who should get tested.

In many states, health officials have parroted the CDC guidance when telling doctors who to test. But in some states, officials have varied a bit, depending on a range of factors, including availability of tests and whether the virus is known to be spreading there.

A New York man said he ran into hurdles trying to get tested after the death of a business associate who was infected with the coronavirus. Joseph Faraldo said he began feeling ill earlier this month and tested negative for the flu. He said he called the state health department and “they were useless,” and then the city health department failed to call him back as promised.

His doctor sent him to a clinic where he was tested Wednesday. He expects results Friday.

“I think I was pretty lucky, they told me come on in,” Faraldo said.

The CDC is also telling doctors to give priority to the elderly or those who have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, which can cause pneumonia. Doctors are also supposed to prioritize medical workers or others who have been in contact with a confirmed case.

The agency recommends people be tested for flu, to rule that out, because many of the symptoms are similar and it is flu season.

Meanwhile, some researchers are trying to estimate how many Americans are actually infected.

Earlier research suggests that for every documented, confirmed case, seven or more people are infected but not diagnosed, said Jeffrey Shaman, a Columbia University scientist noted for his work on flu predictions.

That suggests there could be 14,000 or more infected people in the United States right now, he said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. The vast majority of people recover from COVID-19 in a couple of weeks.

The U.S. testing effort has been hobbled by a series of delays, including flaws with the testing kits first distributed by the federal government and bureaucratic hurdles that held up testing by private labs at hospitals, universities and testing chains.

Public health labs across the country are now running the tests, and large commercial labs like LabCorp and Quest are ramping up too. Broad-scale testing is a critical part of tracking and containing viral outbreaks.

Responding to complaints, the Trump administration named a testing “czar” at the Department of Health and Human Services. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health, will be responsible for coordinating between the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as private labs and state and local government.

Medicare also announced it will pay about $36 for the CDC coronavirus test and around $51 for tests from other providers. Private insurers have said they would cover the tests.

Swiss medical company Roche received emergency approval from the FDA to run coronavirus tests on its automated, high-volume testing system.

The approval is expected to help U.S. labs dramatically increase their testing capacity, although Roche’s system is mainly available at large health facilities. Roche said the test takes about 3 1/2 hours to run and can deliver as many as 4,000 results per day.

Currently most U.S. labs are testing using a manual method that involves mixing chemicals and processing small batches. Testing times vary by lab and can range from four to eight hours.

Separately, the FDA posted on Twitter that labs having problems getting supplies for collecting patient samples for testing should call the agency’s toll-free information hotline.

“The demand is very high,” said Dr Bobbi Pritt, a lab director at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “There are going to be shortages at first before we can really ramp this up.”

Hospitals and other health systems will have to prioritize testing for patients who truly need it, versus those who may be worried but don’t have symptoms, Pritt said.


Stobbe reported from New York. Associated Press Writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington also contributed to this report.


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By Matthew Perrone and Mike Stobbe

Associated Press