Lack of testing supplies an obstacle to reopening economy, officials say


A lack of supplies like swabs and chemicals is a major obstacle to expanding COVID-19 testing in the U.S. and eventually reopening parts of the economy, health officials and governors said Wednesday.

The pandemic has stressed the supply chains for items needed to collect and process patient samples, delaying results and making it impossible to determine how many Americans have the virus.

“We’re at a really critical juncture, and the supply chain has not yet caught up,” said Scott Becker, chief executive officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. 

“The fact remains that you can’t implement the tests unless you have materials to perform the test,” he said. 

That becomes problematic as public health experts warn widespread testing is a prerequisite to successfully reopening the economy.

While testing has improved significantly since the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., it is still not where it needs to be. Shortages of swabs, reagents or chemicals used to process tests, pipettes and other goods have threatened progress.

For example, while the U.S. distribution center for lab supplies received an order of 200,000 swabs this week, public health labs have ordered 2.5 million swabs.

“This is a huge and painful pinch point,” Becker said. 

Public health labs run a relatively small number of COVID-19 tests compared to commercial labs like Quest. 

Of the 3.1 million COVID-19 tests that have been completed in the U.S., only 317,000 were run by public health labs, partly due to lack of supplies, infrastructure and staffing. 

But commercial labs also have trouble finding consistent, predictable access to supplies, the American Clinical Lab Association said this week.

Commercial labs say they’re also facing funding shortfalls that jeopardize their ability to increase testing capacity.

Academic medical centers are running into the same problem, telling Congress this week shortages of reagents, swabs and personal protective equipment are impeding their efforts.

“As we have come to learn over the past several weeks, despite the best efforts of all parties, not one of these components is readily available in sufficient quantities to each and every lab that needs them,” the Association of American Medical Colleges wrote in a letter to White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx.

State health officials are looking to the federal government to help address the supply chain issues. 

“The supply chain for testing is quite difficult along the entire spectrum,” said John Wiesman, secretary of health at the Washington State Department of Health. 

“We’re calling on the federal government to increase those supply chains,” he said. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has urged Trump to use the Defense Production Act to force companies to ramp up manufacturing of test kits. 

He said Wednesday he has heard from commercial labs that they don’t have enough swabs or chemicals to ramp up testing. 

“It is very hard to bring this to scale, quickly, and we need the federal government to be part of this,” Cuomo said. 

New York City public health officials recently warned providers that a “serious shortage” of swabs could cause some hospitals to run out.   

President Trump didn’t address shortages of supplies during a press conference Tuesday evening, but he repeatedly said it is up to the states to do testing. And if governors aren’t satisfied with the testing in their states, then they shouldn’t “open” their states. 

Public health experts say that to reopen the economy millions of tests per week would be needed to quickly identify new cases and isolate them from the rest of the population to prevent large outbreaks before they happen.

Labs in the U.S. completed about 870,000 tests in the past seven days, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Coronavirus Donald Trump
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