After flirting with funding cuts for the 40 coronavirus testing sites it’s been managing, the federal government, thankfully, reversed that decision late Thursday. The U.S. government’s testing chief Adm, Brett Giroir should be applauded for keeping resources flowing to community testing sites. However, the fact that such a rash choice was considered reflects just how off-track our federal response has been when it comes to this key part of fighting the pandemic.
We are just weeks away from the United States’ expected COVID-19 peak, and as scores of state and local officials are making clear, rather than rollbacks, we need broader testing capacity with the federal government leading the effort.
Testing resources have improved in most cities since March, but we still lack basic access to COVID-19 tests in too many places. Limited supplies mean that many people who need tests still can’t get them, and for those who can get tests, the turnaround time for results is far too long. With these gaps, doctors have reported being forced to assume every person with respiratory symptoms who enters a hospital is COVID-19 positive.
This is problematic because it requires using limited isolation rooms and medical supplies to care for patients who might not need them because, while they are sick, they are COVID-19 negative. The situation is so bleak that some medical professionals who may have been exposed to the disease can’t even get tested. And when 25 percent of people infected with COVID-19 don’t show symptoms, the need for access to tests has become more important than ever.
What’s particularly vexing is the federal government has the resources and emergency powers to expand testing at a faster pace. The Defense Production Act gives the federal government broad authority to enlist private industry to produce tests and medical equipment. Our leaders in Washington can use that ability to leverage the national government’s large purchasing power in negotiating for testing supplies. From there, they can provide needed materials to states -- instead of letting states and local agencies compete against each other for limited resources.
During this unprecedented time, when our normal lives have been put on hold, public health experts are clamoring for federal officials to use their full powers to massively expand testing capacity immediately. For example, former Republican appointees to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Mark McClellan and Scott Gottlieb have called for strong leadership to build up testing capacity right now.
“One weak link in expanded screening has been community testing sites. The other is supply chain,” Gottlieb recently co-wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. “There are enough testing platforms, which are expensive. But labs are running out of liquid reagents, the plastic wells in which samples are prepared, and the synthetic sticks used to swab noses.”
That’s why U.S.PIRG is running a campaign for comprehensive testing. We are calling on federal testing chief Giroir to apply all the resources at his disposal to coordinate a large-scale federal effort to get all the tests we need. By using the Defense Production Act to produce and deliver the tests and supplies health professionals need, he will immediately improve our public health outlook in the face of this pandemic. He must also work with the FDA to set clear standards for quality and expand testing options through newly authorized labs, drive-through testing centers and home testing options.
Beyond that, serological antibody tests should be widely available. This will allow us to know who’s already contracted COVID-19 and has built up a resistance to the virus. We can then use that information to make crucial decisions on when to transition away from social distancing policies. A national, coordinated network that can identify and trace small future pockets of infection is a must as well. This will prevent instances where a few isolated cases multiply into larger outbreaks.
Giroir made the right move in keeping federal testing sites open, but so much more can and should be done. We need a comprehensive testing system, and we need it now.