WASHINGTON (CN) — The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laid out the state of U.S. coronavirus mitigation and containment Tuesday as lawmakers clamored for assurances about the country’s testing capabilities and the Trump administration’s focus on the global pandemic.
Testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee, CDC Director Robert Redfield estimated that public health labs have tested more than 4,500 people across the U.S. That number does not include testing at clinical labs or private ones because the CDC does not yet report that data.
“That information should be out soon,” Redfield said, acknowledging that it is impossible to say what the actual spread looks like without comprehensive reports from all public, private, state and local labs.
The CDC initially posted lab results on its website, although they were incomplete, and then stopped. Redfield vowed that process would resume this week.
This is made possible, he said, because Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp are now able to assist the CDC. Since Monday, Redfield said, both companies are prepared to process tests across the U.S. and in areas with high infection rates.
Sherri Berger, chief strategy and operating officer for the CDC, testified Tuesday that the agency is getting $2.2 billion of the $8.3 billion package approved by Congress last week to manage the outbreak. The CDC from there distributes 90% of that money as “preparedness” grants to 62 entities.
Vice President Mike Pence, appointed last month to lead America’s coronavirus task force, is expected to fill in some of the blanks around programming later Tuesday. Redfield confirmed Pence is prepared to reveal a 50-state plan on how low-, moderate- and high-risk infection areas can implement so-called social-distancing measures to limit the virus’ spread.
Redfield explained that a blanket recommendation wouldn’t work, so this plan is informed by state health officials already on the front lines.
Democratic Representative Nita Lowey expressed gratitude but pressed Redfield about the CDC’s interactions with the federal government as the number of coronavirus cases in her state rise.
“New York asked the federal government to use additional state facilities to process test kits,” said Lowey, who represents Westchester and Rockland counties, areas where the disease has hit hardest. “How many test kits does CDC have to deliver on a daily basis? How is the CDC working to increase testing capacity in the state? How long will it take for facilities to be approved, and how long until a rapid response test is available for healthcare providers? I got the impression CDC was the stumbling block when New York was raring to go.”
Redfield said he worked closely with New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker since Feb. 29 when Zucker was one of the first officials in the U.S. to ask CDC for coronavirus testing.
“Any lab that wants to develop the test and use it, there’s no delay from the federal response,” the director said. “Some major medical centers are up and running in tests. All they have to do is be preapproved to do clinical testing and verify themselves that the test works.”
Those laboratories must submit their tests for regulatory approval to the FDA within 14 days.
“As of Monday, Quest and LabCorp have made this test available in doctor’s offices if a doctor wants to order it,” he said.
The CDC received its first notification about the outbreak for the novel coronavirus on Dec. 31, and the Chinese government made the genetic sequence available publicly by the first week in January. Redfield said this information helped the CDC create its first diagnostic test on Jan. 17.
It would be a few days later when the first person in America tested positive.
Around the same time, Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, called it inevitable that the virus would spread. Within two days, Redfield told Congress Messonnier misspoke. Trump also directly contradicted Messonnier at a press conference that week, saying the spread would be “very small” and that he did not believe it was “inevitable.”
Now, as U.S. cases continue to tick up, and contagion expands — South Africa was the latest nation to report a positive case Tuesday — Redfield chalked initial delays up to processing issues.
“We had to go through a regulatory process to get our tests out. Our test was approved for clinical settings. It was approved for use in high-risk individuals coming from China and later expanded to people with pneumonia,” Redfield said. “Now it’s expanded to any physician who feels there is a need to order that test.”
Democratic Representative Rose DeLauro of Connecticut wasn’t satisfied, noting that the U.S. is still behind South Korea, which is testing 10,000 people a day.
When asked if the U.S. is past containment and into the mitigation phase, Redfield said “in general” the U.S. was in a “blended” stage.
If individuals are tested for COVID-19 at a private lab, and the testing is not approved by the FDA, Redfield said the CDC will still help to confirm results. Delays are to be expected: It can take up to a day to ship tests to the CDC, and results can take 48 hours or more to process. Every test also needs a second round of verification, and that can take up to a week.
Redfield, a virologist, recommended people who feel sick should stay home and do everything they can to avoid infecting people around them.
A representative at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Montgomery County, Maryland — where six cases of coronavirus have been confirmed — meanwhile recommended that people stay home even if they are not symptomatic, as the virus has a 14-day incubation period.
The spokesperson said doctors must first call the CDC if a patient who turns up at the emergency room is exhibiting symptoms. The CDC decides whether to grant approval for a test depending on what criteria are met.
A representative from the CDC did not immediately return request for comment.
Looking ahead, Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the committee agreed Tuesday that the CDC is all but guaranteed its $175 million request for the 2021 budget.
“We need to get more people into public health,” Redfield said. “We don’t want to make priority choices about how we use the money that we do have. We need to build a robust global health security network throughout the world.”
The future of containment is mission critical, he explained, noting how extensive the outbreak has been in Italy, a nation that locked down its borders on Tuesday.
“If this virus gets into Africa, the way it has in Italy, there will be a lot of casualties,” Redfield said.