Now, after a late start, the U.S. might still need more than a month to produce enough tests to catch up with runaway demand, public health experts told VICE News.
“For the time being, the normal state is that there’s going to be more demand than supply,” said Dr. Eric Blank, chief policy officer for the Association of Public Health Laboratories, a group representing the government health labs that have handled the bulk of the testing in the U.S. so far. “We may not see demand meet supply for another month or so.”
The failure raises the likelihood of fresh hot spots erupting in American cities without warning. Epidemiologists say thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Americans have likely already been infected. But without extensive testing, it remains impossible to say for sure.
A “very conservative” estimate released this week by the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center put the total number of infected Americans easily over 9,000 people, or some 10 times the official number of cases confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Wednesday.
An accurate picture of the pandemic’s spread remains vital both for calibrating a national response and slowing the spread of the disease by keeping sick people at home. President Trump’s sweeping, disruptive 30-day travel ban on foreign visitors from Europe will be an ineffective response, medical experts said, now that the virus is already circulating through America.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of Trump’s White House coronavirus task force, bluntly admitted Thursday that the testing system in the U.S. hasn’t worked.
“It is a failing, let’s admit it,” Dr. Fauci said. “The idea of anybody getting [a test] 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.”
Bungling at the CDC
Interviews with health experts and lab specialists this week painted a portrait of bungling, confusion and ill-preparedness at the federal level that’s kept infected Americans from getting tested.
The series of missteps left seasoned health experts scratching their heads about how the process has been so mishandled.
“I don’t understand why they are having so much trouble getting a workable assay [test] out the door in the first place.”
“I don’t understand it,” said Donald Milton, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health and coronavirus expert. “I have tremendous respect for the people I know at CDC. They’re really sharp and capable people. I don’t understand why they are having so much trouble getting a workable assay [test] out the door in the first place.”
A key blunder occurred in February when the CDC sent malfunctioning test kits to state labs, setting back diagnostic lab work by a week to 10 days, according to Dr. Blank of the APHL.
“Our sense was that that process was rushed,” Dr. Blank said. “Some decisions were made that haven’t been thought through very well.”
CDC Director Robert Redfield admitted Wednesday that the test was developed “very rapidly,” and said the facility where the tests were produced may have been contaminated. He refused to say who was in charge of the process, however, or whether that person still is now.
As the CDC scrambled to fix the problem, the agency resorted to shipping samples back to Atlanta for processing. By late February, only 12 labs in five states were able to actually run tests, prompting backups that elicited howls of protest from state officials.