Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Unprecedented Demand' Slows Results From Some Coronavirus Labs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here is a very brief history of American testing in the pandemic. The United States started out drastically short of coronavirus tests. The few people who got them had to wait many days for results. Then the United States engaged private companies to make up the difference. Mobile testing centers appeared in parking lots in many cities. Millions of people were tested. But now, as NPR has reported, most states are short of the testing numbers they need, and people getting tested report delays in getting results.

Admiral Brett Giroir is on the line. He is an assistant secretary of health, and he has been in charge of the federal testing response. Admiral, welcome to the program.

BRETT GIROIR: Thank you. It's good to be here with you this morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I want to quote Mick Mulvaney, President Trump's former chief of staff, who wrote, quote, "it isn't popular to talk about in some Republican circles, but we still have a testing problem." And then he writes, my son was tested recently; we had to wait five to seven days for results. And this is, of course, a widespread complaint. Commercial labs like Quest Diagnostics say they need more than a week because of the testing volume. Do you have any doubt there's a problem here?

GIROIR: So I'm really sorry that happened to Mr. Mulvaney's son. But, overall, we're in just an incredibly much better place. We're doing almost over 700,000 tests per day. About half our tests - and this doesn't reflect in your numbers, but about half our tests are done as point of care, meaning within 15 minutes or within hospitals. That's sort of within eight hours.

And yes, there are some delays at the commercial labs because of the unprecedented demand. We have a number of things we're doing to decrease that sort of immediately. We've sent teams to 19 cities. We've opened over 2,000 retail test sites. And we're helping those places who need to work on sort of prioritizing some of the people who are getting tested. So yes, we want to decrease that time. On average, it's between three and four days across the country. But as you pointed out, some people are waiting five, six or seven days, and we do want to get that down.

INSKEEP: Isn't...

GIROIR: But we've had an unprecedented demand, and we're trying to meet that as best as we can.

INSKEEP: Isn't that demand going to get drastically worse? As our correspondent Allison Aubrey has pointed out, a lot of people are testing more. Workplaces, as they reopen, want tests. Schools, if they reopen, are really going to need a lot of tests. And it's going to get even harder, not easier, for the labs.

GIROIR: No, that's not true because the technology has really caught up with where we are. By October - certainly by September, we expect to have 15 to 20 million point-of-care tests. That's as many tests as we're doing every month now. That's going to dramatically reduce the burden. We just had another test authorized last week. And we're going to be really leaning in on these point of care to nursing homes. We're also doing pooling. We think pooling will be validated on a number of platforms within the next couple of weeks, meaning we can do five or even 10 tests for every one test.

So yes, the demand will increase. We want to have 100 million tests per month done in this country by September, and I think we're well on track to have that done with our point-of-care and other technologies.

INSKEEP: Pooling, of course, that's a technique where you can get a lot of results simultaneously, and effectively get a lot of results a lot faster. But let me try to work through some of these numbers here. There are a lot of numbers. They're hard to keep straight. But you gave a very useful...

GIROIR: Yes, they are.

INSKEEP: You gave a very useful one, Admiral. You said, we're up around 700,000 tests a day - occasionally, even a little bit more than that. That's an impressive number. It's a big improvement from near nothing a few months ago. And yet NPR and Harvard researchers found a couple of weeks ago that what you actually need is 1.2 million tests per day just to mitigate the virus or maybe 4 million tests per day to suppress the virus. Do you agree that there's still a very long way to go here to have sufficient testing?

GIROIR: No, I don't. Just because a person or a group says that's the number you need - we've heard 3 million a day, 30 million a day, 100 million a day. We know that, in areas of the country right now that have appropriate mitigation, that the testing we have is sufficient. We know right now that the testing we have is dense enough that we can detect, very sensitively, where there's going to be a problem. If all...

INSKEEP: If I may interrupt, Admiral. It's correct that...

GIROIR: Yeah, please.

INSKEEP: It's correct - and the Harvard researchers also agreed - there are parts of the country that have adequate testing. The question is whether all the country does, and they find that all the country doesn't.

GIROIR: So, again, I'm happy to talk about every individual site at the points of the country that we think they need increased testing. And we know that - like Phoenix, Baton Rouge, Jacksonville. We are surging testing to those locations. But remember - there is a relationship, right? The more virus you have circulating, the more tests you need. So there is an interaction between these two things. So what we need people to do is to physically distance, wear the mask. We need places that are in hot zones to close bars and to limit restaurants. And if we do those simple things, we can turn around the virus.

And in fact, we're starting to see indications that we are turning the corner in these places right now. But yes, we want to have more testing. More testing will be better. But right now we're in a good place to tell us the information we need. Again, we're going to expand testing probably two- or threefold within the next couple of months to support school reopening and businesses and all the things you talked about.

INSKEEP: Two- or threefold - so you're going to get over a million tests per day pretty soon, you're saying.

GIROIR: Oh, we're going to be over a million tests, you know, very soon. That's not even a question. We're - we've already broken the 800,000 barrier. And, really, that's with no pooling and with the new point-of-care test coming on and some new technology that we believe - you know, we're not going to count on them because you can't - you know, science doesn't run on rails. You can't predict the future.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

GIROIR: But we're highly, highly positive about a number of new technologies that will really come in and improve the ecosystem. And, again, as you pointed out, this is a new virus. There were zero tests available when this came out. So we've come a long way. But, you know, it is a pandemic.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

GIROIR: It's a crisis. It's an unprecedented event.

INSKEEP: Admiral, let me ask about a claim that is regularly made by the president about testing. And we have to label it in advance - it's a false and misleading claim. He made it again yesterday. He's asked about the rising number of coronavirus cases in the country, and he says this - let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They're always talking about cases, the number of cases. Well, it is a big factor that we do - we have a lot of cases because we have a lot of testing, far more than any other country in the world. And it's also the best testing.

INSKEEP: OK, so far more than any other country - that's false. China has done a lot more testing and yet has reported fewer cases. Why do we continue to have this argument? Why not just admit the U.S. has a serious problem and go after it?

GIROIR: So first of all, I wouldn't believe any data that comes out of China about their testing or positivity. We really need more transparency there. But let me get to the point. We are having more cases now than we had a week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, four weeks ago. We are able to identify them better because we have increased testing.

This country - no question - we have serious concerns about the number of cases, but we are in a much different place than we were many months ago. Our testing is better. Our treatment is better. We are far below the peak hospitalizations we were in the past. Only about half - less than half of the number of people who are in hospitals have to go on ventilators. And if you do get coronavirus, your chances of dying are way far reduced, substantially reduced, than they were in the past because of new treatment. So yes, we're concerned. We're leaning in. We're going state to state. But we are in a better place, and we're starting to see signs that we're turning the corner.

INSKEEP: But - in 10 seconds - you agree there are more real cases, there is a more serious problem with cases now than a few weeks ago, correct?

GIROIR: Than a few weeks ago, absolutely. If you do the numbers, we're probably at about the same level we were in April because of better testing. But, clearly, over the last week two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, since June, our numbers have gone up. Those are real increases in cases.

INSKEEP: Admiral, thank you very much. Really appreciate you taking the time.

GIROIR: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Admiral Brett Giroir is an assistant secretary of health at the Department of Health and Human Services and is coordinating the federal coronavirus testing response. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.