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How The Lack Of Coronavirus Test Kits Is Playing Out

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Where are the tests? President Trump said anyone who wants a coronavirus test can get one. But in a congressional hearing yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said that is just not true.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: The system is not really geared to what we need right now, what you are asking for. That is a failing.

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: A failing.

FAUCI: That...

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Yes.

FAUCI: It is a failing. Let's admit it.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: OK.

FAUCI: The idea of anybody getting it easily - the way people in other countries are doing it - we're not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we're not.

MARTIN: The Trump administration this morning announced new efforts to make testing more available, including funds to accelerate development of rapid testing. We're going to take you to either side of this country to understand how state governments are trying to manage the spread of the coronavirus without adequate testing.

Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio is in New York for us this morning. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What are we hearing from New York's governor right now?

MANN: I should say, the FDA now says it's given New York state the green light to allow private labs here to do a lot more testing. That happened just yesterday. Meanwhile, Cuomo is telling hospitals to begin developing contingency plans to handle a lot more sick people.

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ANDREW CUOMO: We are way behind in testing, determining how many people are actually infected. But the most relevant data, from our point of view, is the hospitalization rate.

MANN: And I should say, Rachel, this is a big change. Before now, state officials were talking about trying to stop the chain of transmission. Now it's more about managing a virus that they say is really loose in the community.

MARTIN: OK. So getting more specific, what does he mean? What does the governor mean when he says the most important data is the hospitalization rate?

MANN: Yeah, this is interesting. Cuomo says the state's health system is still basically flying blind, even after all these weeks. What that means is, as of this morning, there still isn't enough testing going on to guide how they distribute resources to slow the spread of COVID-19. They don't know which hospitals might have to be reinforced or given extra help. There could be big, growing clusters of coronavirus out there right now that we haven't discovered yet. And unless they get that information soon, Cuomo says we could be in a situation like we've seen overseas, where people are seriously sick and there are no hospital beds left.

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CUOMO: When you look at what happened in Italy - where did they get into trouble? You overwhelm the health care system. That's what you want to plan for now.

MANN: So Cuomo says he's pushing the CDC to approve testing facilities that can handle about 5,000 tests a day. He wants that in place by next week. And he's also telling hospitals across the state to begin developing their contingency plans right now to handle a lot more sick people.

MARTIN: So Governor Cuomo also announced these sweeping new restrictions yesterday on public gatherings and limiting visits to nursing homes. Broadway is going to go dark. What do public officials say about the end result of all of that?

MANN: Yeah, yesterday was a tough day in New York. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the surge of new cases in the city striking and troubling. The message now is, again, that this is about slowing the spread of the coronavirus so the medical system can keep up. And I should say, Rachel, it's not just urban areas that are worried and trying to manage this crisis. A lot of communities in rural upstate New York, where I live, are really elderly. These are people who are considered highly vulnerable to COVID-19, and there's been a serious doctor shortage in this part of New York for years.

MARTIN: Right.

MANN: That's scary for people. State and local officials say the goal is to keep this from accelerating out of control. And again, crucially, doing that without testing, without good, up-to-date data, that's going to be very difficult.

MARTIN: Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio in New York. Brian, thanks. We appreciate it.

MANN: Thank you.

MARTIN: We're going to bring in Jackie Fortier now. She's a health reporter from member station KPCC in Los Angeles. Hi, Jackie.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: What's the situation in California right now?

FORTIER: California is ramping up testing, but they're having to work around incomplete kits provided by the federal government. So to get around these manufacturing defects, California Governor Gavin Newsom said at a press conference Thursday that labs are actually having to send different components to each other just to complete the tests.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: I think it's very much in line, these tests, with your going to the store and purchasing a printer but forgetting to purchase the ink. Some labs have tests but don't have the reagents. We're sending those reagents down to those labs - that's an example here in Sacramento - and we're addressing those things in real time.

FORTIER: Newsom said that a little more than 1,570 tests have been completed in California. But I mean, really, it's a drop in the bucket. Public health experts say that thousands of people have likely been exposed to the virus in California alone.

MARTIN: So there aren't enough tests. The tests that California does have access to - federal tests - are incomplete. I mean, this, I imagine, has created a backlog of kits that have to be tested and aren't being. How is that going to happen? Are more labs stepping in?

FORTIER: Yeah. We're seeing a big increase in commercial labs, universities, public and private hospitals - are now handling more and more of the testing. Governor Newsom said that another two commercial labs will come online by the end of the month, which, combined, could complete about 5,000 tests per day. They'll also handle tests from outside of California.

He said that the state is working to identify test sites around California so that people with a doctor's approval will know where to go to get tested in their area, which will hopefully mean that more people will get access. But we don't have any further information on that yet.

MARTIN: Right. So the most recent person who died in California was in the Los Angeles area. That brings the total number of fatalities there to four. What is the testing situation like specifically in LA?

FORTIER: Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that the county's labs are facing a significant backlog. Here's Ferrer on Thursday.

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BARBARA FERRER: I know we're swamped. We're trying to purchase two new machines so that we will have more capacity here. We try, as much as possible, to get individual providers to go to the commercial labs. And we try to service the hospitals, where patients are more seriously ill.

FORTIER: Interestingly, she also said that her agency had filed an application with the federal government so they can offer drive-through testing to Angelenos. We've seen those in other countries. That application is waiting on FDA approval.

MARTIN: So as more people get tested, more people are going to need treatment. Right? What have officials said in Los Angeles about managing that widespread treatment?

FORTIER: Yeah, you're right. Treatment is obviously the next step, especially for patients with complicated cases. So LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that she thinks hospitals will be able to cope because they have plans for surges of patients. But she said the new focus will likely be on intensive care units.

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FERRER: What we really would need to watch out for is what's happening in our ICUs - because those are limited numbers of beds - and what's happening in terms of getting people screened and moved to a more appropriate setting before they come into hospitals.

FORTIER: But really, it's all about quick and accurate coronavirus testing.

MARTIN: Jackie Fortier with member station KPCC in Los Angeles. We appreciate it. Thank you so much.

FORTIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.