Coronavirus testing expands to 2,000 labs

March 15, 2020



More than 2,000 labs across the country will start processing tests for COVID-19 early this week, Vice President Mike Pence said during a news briefing late Sunday.

The move, the result of a partnership between the federal government and commercial labs, means upward of 1.9 million tests will start flowing through the healthcare system this week.

The labs will prioritize healthcare workers, first responders and at-risk seniors as they show signs of COVID-19, according to HHS assistant secretary Dr. Brett Giroir.

“This is a real game-changer for us,” Giroir said.

The Trump administration had come under heavy criticism because of the limited availability of tests and insufficient testing capabilities.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration late last week gave emergency approval to Roche and Thermo Fisher Scientific to begin producing new tests.

Expanding to 2,000 labs across the country will not happen all at once. Labs have to adapt their machines and processes to the newly approved tests, Giroir said, adding that the rollout will happen throughout the week. As these labs come online, it will ease some of the burden on such larger companies as LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics.

“To hospitals and labs—know there will be pent-up demand,” Ambassador Dr. Debbie Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, cautioned during Sunday’s news briefing. She urged them to make sure they have the appropriate level of supplies and equipment on hand.

With higher volumes of testing, Americans should also prepare to see a spike in the number of confirmed cases.

“There will be a spike in our curve,” she said.

As of Sunday night, there were nearly 3,000 cases and 62 deaths in the U.S.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that the department is working with hospitals to build their surge capacity. Part of that, he said, is taking a lesson learned from China and putting people who test positive for the virus together in reserved spaces, which reduces the need to build in extra protections for other patients.

The department is working to increase availability of needed supplies, pointing out that recently approved emergency funding will allow for a ramp up in production of masks and other equipment domestically and abroad. Azar would not specify the amount of equipment that’s currently available or how much more the government will buy, citing national security concerns.

On the Sunday morning talk show circuit, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he’d like to see Americans dramatically cut down public interactions in an effort to reduce the risk of spreading the disease, something he reinforced later in the day at the news conference. He hinted that more stringent guidelines may be coming on Monday.

“To protect the American people, we consider everything and anything on the table,” Fauci said, adding that he didn’t want to “jump ahead of the guidance” that the administration plans to issue tomorrow.

The governors of Illinois and Ohio Sunday announced that they were closing restaurants and bars to in-person service for the next couple of weeks.

“We will be issuing an order closing all bars and restaurants in #Ohio beginning at 9:00 tonight,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tweeted. “What we can’t have is people congregating and seated.”

Establishments will still be able to do carry out and delivery.

Also spurred by the crisis, the Federal Reserve on Sunday cut interest rates to near-zero and announced plans to buy government and mortgage-backed debt.

“Makes me very happy. I want to congratulate the Federal Reserve,” President Donald Trump said.

Trump also said he spoke with leaders of several major retailers, including Target, Kroger and Costco, who assured him that they would stay open and are ramping up their supply chain to fill empty shelves.

Trump, though, asked Americans not to hoard supplies.