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Faster Coronavirus Testing May Help To Ease Results Backlog

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's check on one of the numbers that measure the American response to the pandemic. We're getting to know a lot of these basic numbers by now - how many hospital beds are available where they are needed, how many health care workers, how much protective gear. The number we check on today is testing. How many Americans are getting tested, and how does that compare to the demand? NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been looking into this. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Trump administration says they're testing a lot.

STEIN: Yeah. You know, they're saying that we've tested now more than a million tests and more than 100,000 are being done every day now. That's getting there. But it's still nowhere close to really what we need to be doing right now.

INSKEEP: Because it's a big country with 320 million people. OK. But why would that be the case that we'd still be behind given that new tests are being approved, companies are diving into this game, everybody understands the urgency?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, while there's a big difference between having tests and being able to actually do the tests, the most startling example of that just emerged. You know, Quest Diagnostics, which is one of the country's big medical testing companies, just acknowledged that it had a backlog of 160,000 tests.

INSKEEP: Wow.

STEIN: Yeah. And Quest says the lab in California that started the company's testing simply got overwhelmed. Things supposedly got better when Quest started using a faster test and opened 12 testing sites around the country. But Quest's still been able to only whittle that down to about 115,000 tests.

INSKEEP: OK. This means somebody is doing the nasal swab or whatever, but then it's not getting processed. You don't get the results back because of this backlog. Is that company's experience normal?

STEIN: No. I mean, well, yeah. I mean, other companies are backed up, too, so are hospitals, public health labs. You know, the problem is by the time they all finally got geared up, the virus was already spreading like crazy. The White House was promising far more testing than was really possible. So all the labs have been scrambling to catch up. You know, they're short of staff, constantly running out of supplies like swabs to collect samples and chemicals to extract and analyze the genetic material from the virus. Here's Kelly Wroblewski. She's from the public health lab - she's from the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

KELLY WROBLEWSKI: It's a giant mess. It is. There's no way around it. You know, I have been trying to stay optimistic through this whole response and hoping that there's light at the end of the tunnel. But I think, really, we just keep sort of taking it a day at a time and solving the problems we have that day and doing as much testing as possible that day. And then we sort of do it all over again.

INSKEEP: Are the new, faster tests going to help?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, they're easier to do, and they crank out results in hours and even minutes instead of days. So if enough of them get out there, they could help a lot, but that's a big question. I talked to Gary Procop about this from the Cleveland Clinic.

GARY PROCOP: They're kind of trickling in, you know, and I have to say our rapid tests just went live today. And, you know, my email box is filling up with different doctors in different situations that want to use that test. So we're limiting who can have access to the rapid test because we will run out.

STEIN: Yeah. So at least for now, Procop is restricting the new fast test to critically ill patients and maybe women giving birth so doctors know which moms are infected and so have to immediately get separated from their newborn babies.

INSKEEP: Excruciating choices that doctors and other health care professionals are having to make in this situation where you'd want as much information as possible it would seem. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: No problem, Steve. You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein with an update on the backlog in coronavirus testing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.