WASHINGTON — The federal government will roll out a nationwide coronavirus testing system at mobile sites across the country this week, a top Trump administration health official said Sunday.
Brett Giroir, a top deputy to health secretary Alex Azar who was recently designated to oversee the administration’s efforts to ramp up testing capacity, said the federal government would begin shipping materials for a network of mobile testing facilities on Monday. By the end of the week, he said, 1.9 million tests would be available to as many as 2,000 laboratories nationwide.
“We believe we’ve created a model, based on the public health and the FEMA system, that is optimized, that can be used for drive-through or potentially walk-through [testing],” Giroir said. “Each of these pod-based units, we believe, can screen 2,000 to 4,000 individuals a day.”
Giroir said officers from the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service of health workers who report to the surgeon general, would begin deploying to the test sites by Tuesday.
Trump administration officials, however, warned of “pent-up demand” for tests. So far, the U.S. has dramatically lagged behind other nations hard-hit by the novel coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, Covid-19. U.S. labs conducted roughly 2,500 tests per day on March 9, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. South Korea, a nation with a population roughly six times smaller than the United States, had conducted roughly 20,000 tests daily.
The Trump administration has weathered heavy criticism for the slow testing ramp-up — first, for declining to simply use an existing test developed by the World Health Organization, and later for distributing tests that didn’t work.
“I’m not going to say that the lab testing issue is over, because it’s not,” Giroir said. “It’s entering the next phase, but the much higher priority now is, now that we have the testing available, how do we get people into the system to be tested in the appropriate prioritized way? And that’s what we’ve really been focused on.”
Deborah Birx, a physician and diplomat who oversaw the State Department’s HIV/AIDS response during the Obama administration, addressed hospitals and laboratory workers directly, comparing the necessary supplies to HIV viral load testing.
“Make sure you have enough pipette tips, pipe cutters, and all of the equipment that you need to run this laboratory,” she said. “We know with this increased sampling, this increased ability to have community access, additional samples will be going to these laboratories. They can manage the high throughput, but they need all of the supplies that they would normally need to run these tests.”
Trump, during a brief appearance in the White House briefing room, attempted to justify an inaccurate statement he made Friday, when he said Google would soon roll out a website that Americans could use to determine whether they should be tested for Covid-19.
Trump did not mention that Verily, Google’s life sciences offshoot, was in the early stages of developing the website — and that in the short term, it would only be available to individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Separately, Azar addressed concerns that U.S. hospitals are unprepared for a soon-to-come influx of severely ill Covid-19 patients. The administration has already engaged in planning work related to hospital capacity, he said. He urged consolidating treatment of coronavirus cases where possible, arguing that grouping patients together would allow hospitals to focus more on health care for patients already infected, instead of expending time and energy preventing new infections in patients hospitalized for unrelated reasons.
Pence also said the administration would issue new guidelines Monday morning regarding mitigation strategies. Numerous states have shuttered schools for weeks to come, and some local governments have gone further, urging or expressly prohibiting bars and restaurants from doing business. Trump has hinted that he is considering enacting domestic travel restrictions, especially to and from cities experiencing high rates of community spread.