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U.S. Wants To Ramp Up COVID-19 Testing To 100 Million A Month By September

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much coronavirus testing can the United States do, and how much is enough? The official in charge of testing offered a dramatic new projection yesterday. Admiral Brett Giroir was on this program. He took our questions about a shortfall in testing that has constantly frustrated efforts to contain the pandemic. He said, correctly, that testing has increased a lot since the spring, and then he set a goal for the fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRETT GIROIR: 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: One hundred million tests per month - that's a new goal. We hadn't heard it publicly before. That is a lot more testing than the U.S. does now and also a much higher goal for the fall than the U.S. had previously set. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been asking how that goal compares to the demand. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And I guess, first, we should ask if it's even possible for the U.S. to do that many tests in a month.

STEIN: You know, so I followed up with the Health and Human Services Department after the interview to try to clarify how the administration thinks it could hit that new hundred-million-a-month target. And what they're saying is they expect to get there by using some new approaches to testing. That includes some new cheap, fast tests and something called pooling, which is essentially testing specimens in batches. The administration says that would enable the equivalent of 100 million monthly tests to be done by September.

INSKEEP: But is what they say doable?

STEIN: So it may be possible, but there are a lot of questions about how realistic that really is. You know, and one big obstacle is the problem that's been causing the shortages all along - getting enough supplies to actually do the tests. The latest shortage I heard about yesterday was of plastic tips for devices known as pipettes, which are needed to do the tests. So unless something dramatic happens, it's far from clear whether the system could even deliver the swabs and the vials and the chemicals needed to do much more testing.

And, you know, this pooling idea - that could help. But there are big questions about the approach - whether it's as reliable and practical and whether it would actually end up being more efficient, especially if the virus becomes even more widespread. You know, and, also, some of those new tests the administration is banking on may not be as reliable.

INSKEEP: OK, so a tough goal to meet, but let's do some math on that goal. One hundred million tests per month - that works out to more than 3 million tests per day. Suppose they manage to do that. Would that be enough?

STEIN: Well, the short answer is probably not. You know, according to an analysis of U.S. testing that NPR conducted with Harvard, the country should be doing at least 1 million tests a day today, and that's just to keep the virus under control, you know, to keep it from surging back again. But it really should be doing more than 4 million tests a day to suppress the virus, to really push the numbers down, so the country, you know, can do things like safely send kids back to school and get people back to work.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So they're aiming for 3 million or a little more per day, but you're saying this study found you need 4 million, at least.

STEIN: By September, yeah, probably. And the country, you know, actually, by then could actually need way, way more testing. I talked about this with Ashish Jha at Harvard.

ASHISH JHA: What they're promising in September is what we, you know, needed in June. And given the complete out-of-control outbreaks that we're having in large parts of our country, one would worry that the number of cases will go up between now and September and not necessarily come down. And we may find ourselves at even that level of testing, even if they're able to deliver it, may not be enough.

INSKEEP: Wow. Now, there's another thing we spoke about with Admiral Giroir, and that's the question of people who get tested but then wait days and days for results. He minimized that somewhat. He said some people get their test results in minutes, but other people clearly don't. Why?

STEIN: Well, you know, it's really just a supply and demand issue. You know, the demand has been surging so much that the labs - they just can't keep up. And, you know, if you don't get the results right away, it almost defeats the purpose of doing the test. Take the experience of Angela Nygren (ph). She lives in Kansas City. Her day care provider came down with a fever, then her husband did, too, so they knew they had to get tested. They ended up going through a hospital to get results sooner, but it took several days.

ANGELA NYGREN: We called 311, waited a couple hours to get a call back and then got a call back, and the next available test wasn't for 10 days. So that was kind of pointless. So I called CVS MinuteClinic. They had no availabilities within 14 days. And then once you get a test, you wouldn't be able to get your results for five to seven days.

STEIN: So, you know, they went to the hospital and got some tests. But, you know, people need to know right away if they're infected so they can isolate themselves before they can infect anyone else. And anyone they may have also infected needs to get tested right away to make sure that they don't spread the virus even more. So, you know, if the test results don't come back for a week or more, it's really too late to be effective in stopping the spread of the virus.

INSKEEP: When we focus on September, when people - at least some people - will be trying to go back to school, when people are desperate to get back to work, are we focusing on, really, the fundamental question - how many tests are there, and can people protect themselves and isolate cases?

STEIN: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. That's what we need to do because it's fundamental to preventing this virus from surging out of control over and over again, which is the problem we've been having. And if that - we can't get that under control, there's no way that we're able to get the country back to normal, get things reopened again like everybody wants.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks for the reality check.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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