Governors Call on Feds to Help Expand Covid-19 Testing

A House panel heard testimony Tuesday from a group of governors who called for more testing to better combat the coronavirus pandemic.

A medical worker, center, takes a sample from the nose of a woman at a coronavirus testing tent outside MGH Healthcare Center in Chelsea, Mass., last month. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Skylar Herbert, a 5-year-old black girl from Detroit, became the youngest person to die in Michigan from Covid-19 in April. Her death led to a memorial fund in her name, backed by local police and fire departments, which directly supports her first responder parents.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Tuesday that Herbert’s story had reverberated through the state capitol to the Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. Part of that group’s job is to develop flexible models to make testing more available to vulnerable communities like Herbert’s and connecting people without doctors to primary care physicians.

“The virus had held a mirror up to our society and reminded us of the deep inequities in this country,” Whitmer testified. “From basic lack of access to health care, transportation and protections in the workplaces, these inequities hit people of color and vulnerable communities the hardest.”

The subcommittee on oversight and investigations, chaired by Congresswoman Diana DeGette, D-Colo., met Tuesday with governors of three states to examine the national availability of coronavirus tests.

Expanding that testing availability to the level recommended by public health officials would nearly double the current rate of about 7 million Americans a week, DeGette said, and will require more engagement from the Trump administration. As of Tuesday, more than 105,600 Americans have died of Covid-19, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

“The administration is promising 40 to 50 million tests per month by September,” DeGette said. “I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt but with this track record, the administration simply has no credibility in this matter.”

Whitmer, a Democrat, said health care workers in Michigan are concerned with having access to swabs used for Covid-19 testing or reagents used for chemical analysis of those tests. While supplies of personal protective equipment, or PPE, dwindled in March, by the next month the state was able to maintain a week’s worth of available supplies, she said.

Whitmer said a federal plan for governors on implementing national testing coordination would be a huge benefit to states. Local officials have called for instructions from the federal government often during recent congressional hearings.

“We can debate about international manufacturing but we have paid a price for the fact that these things have not been produced in the United States, and I would just submit that a national strategy to ensure that we have these test kits is the most important thing that the federal government really needs to take the reins on,” Whitmer said.

Dr. Howard Forman, a Yale University professor of diagnostic radiology, wrote in an email Tuesday that getting testing levels to a sufficient level is a key effort in eradicating Covid-19, but it is just one part of the solution.

“Testing volume is just one measure: how effective, efficient, timely your testing is is key,” he wrote. “Contact tracing and isolation is the other piece.”

Forman said PPE remains in short supply for health care professionals and the perceived surplus in many hospitals is due to the reuse of these materials. For example, gowns grew into an even shorter supply since they are not able to be reused but could be used for a longer period of time then intended before being removed, he said.  

“Most institutions have figured out how to use one-time disposable N95 masks for a week or longer and/or to sterilize them daily,” Forman wrote. “So, while it is true that most places now have a ready supply going forward, it has occurred by reusing something that was intended to be disposable. Just imagine, for a moment, if all the other disposable things in your life were required to be reused.”

Along with Whitmer, the committee heard from Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican.

Polis said in a time “where competent governance is of paramount importance,” he hoped his state’s practices could guide federal decision-making in an economic and public health crisis.

Protecting older Coloradans in nursing homes and doing everything possible to acquire testing supplies were his administration’s top priorities, he testified.

“Based on what our modeling was telling us, we needed to severely limit the number of person-to-person interactions by about 75 to 80%,” Polis testified. “On the other side of the spectrum, the modeling was showing that this virus would have killed 33,000 Coloradans by now if we took no action.”

Hutchinson, who allowed the reopening of three Arkansas casinos last month after easing a myriad of other statewide restrictions, said his public health team advised issuing a stay-at-home order would not stall the spread of Covid-19. As of Monday, cases were still increasing in Arkansas, rising by 190 cases to a total of 7,443.

“We kept our numbers low by offering firm and sound guidance, by closing what we had to and by trusting Arkansans to do the right thing out of consideration for their neighbors and their own health,” Hutchinson testified.

The governor concluded by sharing a goal for the month of June.

“We plan to test every resident and staff person in all the nursing homes in Arkansas. This is our most vulnerable population, and we want to do everything possible to keep them safe,” Hutchinson said.

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