WASHINGTON (CN) – The nation’s senior-most expert on infectious diseases told lawmakers Thursday the U.S. is failing at a federal level to administer broadscale testing for the novel coronavirus.
The blunt message was delivered to the House Oversight Committee by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the top members of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus taskforce.
It was the second time in as many days Fauci spoke plainly to lawmakers about glaring gaps the outbreak has exposed in America’s pandemic response abilities.
“The system is not really geared to what we need right now and what you’re asking for,” Fauci said, fielding questions from Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., on when the U.S. would see tests distributed en masse or if that is possible. “The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it – we’re not set up for that. That is a failing. It’s a failing. Let’s admit that.”
On Thursday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said only 75,000 tests have so far been issued from the CDC to public health labs and clinicians around the U.S.
But he underscored that laboratories like Quest Diagnostic, LabCorp and others are hurrying to develop test kits and adopt appropriate CDC guidelines allowing them to potentially double production capacity.
The American Enterprise Institute is tracking test kit development and reported Thursday that with more diagnostic labs now making up for lost time, the estimated rate of daily testing capacity in America sits at 20,695 people per day. That figure is up from just 24 hours earlier when estimated testing capacity was closer to 16,500 people per day.
The delay by the CDC is due in part to the “complexity of getting the tests,” Redfield told lawmakers.
It’s not just a matter of having access to reagents, or the chemicals used to extract and stabilize ribonucleic acid needed for sampling, he said. It’s also about having other vital equipment functional and readily available as the outbreak ramps up.
This week, the American Society for Microbiology warned reagent shortages were likely and noted demand for kits also put extraordinary pressure on related supplies.
People with serious underlying medical conditions are given top priority for most tests. According to the CDC, surveillance testing, which allows health officials to test in communities at random in order to develop a sense for the outbreak’s spread, is just barely being rolled out in under a dozen locations in the U.S.
While the CDC has multiple tools at its disposal for surveillance testing of other diseases, testing for the coronavirus known as COVID-19 isn’t ready on a widespread scale. Redfield did not say what the timeline might be.
States like Hawaii and Colorado have begun taking matters into their own hands. The Mile High State opened its first drive-through testing site just outside the Colorado Department of Public Health on Wednesday. The department ended up testing 160 people in a single day, which, according to the Colorado Sun, was nearly double the number of tests the state lab can do in 24 hours.
Hawaii kicked off surveillance testing on Wednesday too and its Department of Health said this week it anticipates being able to test at least 200 people per week.
For now, Fauci and Redfield recommended avoiding crowds and large gatherings, staying home if feeling sick, self-quarantining and contacting a physician to arrange for testing.
But for Democratic Representative Ayanna Pressley’s district in Massachusetts, where 30,000 people are uninsured, those recommendations aren’t always realistic.
“What if you’re a hotel worker who is prediabetic and uninsured?” Pressley asked during the hearing. “What guidance does CDC have?”
“It is critical people do their 14 days at home and not sneak out so they can earn a living,” Redfield said before confirming that the cost of testing and the cost of treatment would be covered for the uninsured.
That information doesn’t appear on the CDC website but Redfield vowed Thursday it would soon.
Meanwhile Thursday, the House was locked in negotiations over legislation that would give state unemployment insurance programs $2 billion and pour $1 billion into food assistance for vulnerable families. The bill also proposes free coronavirus testing, paid leave for employees hit by the outbreak, and more funds for Medicaid.
The Trump administration has floated the idea of paying people who have been furloughed but it’s not yet clear how successful that effort will be. Congress was headed for recess next week, but with the death toll in the U.S. now at 39 and coronavirus cases reported in 44 states, lawmakers opted to hunker down and hammer out the bill.
Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and emergency response at Health and Human Services, told lawmakers they should pass the legislation immediately since it would help shore up a limited national stockpile of personal protective equipment, like respirators and masks.
Kadlec said 350 million respirators are used annually across the U.S., with just 35 million of those used by the health care industry.
“The [future] demand could be from 700 million to 1 billion in a six-month period,” Kadlec said of the respirators.
Manufacturers are working with the Health and Human Services Department to produce more since most of the supply comes from China. In the meantime, nonmedical masks, like those used at mining or construction sites, could also be used by health care workers on the front lines. Certification by the Food and Drug Administration is needed, as well as some modifications to existing liability laws, but House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. said she and other lawmakers were ready to assist.
As the U.S. awaits broad testing, Fauci said it cannot be repeated enough that people should take remote and telework seriously. While coronavirus seems to hit adults over 65 the hardest and anyone with compromised immunity is at higher risk, the severity of cases varies across age groups.
“It’s not linear,” Fauci said
It is not yet totally clear whether coronavirus is like other viruses and once contracted, it cannot be contracted again.
A person could wait weeks after recovering from something that felt like the seasonal flu and only after being tested discover they actually had coronavirus.
“Let’s say I get infected. Whether I [appear] sick or not, somehow I clear the infection from my body. I do two tests 24 hours apart, which is the standard, to see if I’m no longer infected. A month and a half later, if I do a test and that test is positive, I’m not transmitting to anybody because my body has already cleared the virus,” Fauci said. “So even though my antibody test says, yes, you were infected a month or two ago, right now, if there is no virus in me, I am not able to transmit.”
Health and disease experts in China and Poland have contested this claim, saying that reinfection is possible, but professors at Singapore’s Duke-NUS medical school told USA Today on Thursday that the data is still too new to say one way or the other.