WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Monday unveiled a “blueprint” to increase capacity for coronavirus tests nationwide, the latest step in the White House’s effort to help states gradually roll back dramatic lockdown measures.
While the blueprint itself contains few specifics, a number of private companies, including CVS and Walgreens, pledged to work with the federal government to quickly add capacity to conduct millions of tests per month. Top Trump health aides pledged at Monday’s White House briefing that the new effort would create capacity to conduct as many as 2 million tests per week by the end of May to “give the American people confidence that we can reopen and get our economy moving again,” Vice President Mike Pence said.
The 2-million-tests-per-week pledge would represent a dramatic testing capacity increase for the U.S., where roughly 5.4 million coronavirus tests have been conducted to date. Yet it also represents the low end of what many public health officials estimate the country will require to safely reopen, according to an analysis conducted by STAT and leading public health officials. Other leading researchers have estimated that for most Americans to safely return to work, testing capacity might need to reach between 3 and 4 million per week.
It is also unclear whether Pence’s estimates are achievable, especially in the immediate future. Brett Giroir, a physician who has overseen much of the Trump administration’s coronavirus testing efforts, offered a more cautious estimate. At a minimum, he said, the federal government would supply roughly double the number of tests each month that South Korea’s government has performed to date — an estimate that translates to roughly 1.2 million tests monthly.
Much of the testing responsibility appears likely to fall on private companies, many of which on Monday announced expansions of their own testing capacity.
CVS Health said it would partner with the federal government to dramatically scale up coronavirus testing at parking lots and drive-through windows adjacent to the pharmacy chain’s locations throughout the country. The partnership, which would not begin until May, aims to open over 1,000 sites by the end of the month, creating capacity for 1.5 million monthly tests. CVS already conducts mobile coronavirus testing in Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Rhode Island, and the company said in a release that many of those sites are capable of conducting over 1,000 tests per day.
The company cautioned, however, that those estimates were “subject to availability of supplies and lab capacity.” Both supply chain issues and availability of materials critical to conducting coronavirus tests, including reagents, have plagued ongoing efforts to ramp up testing.
Trump has enthusiastically promoted efforts to reopen the country though the U.S. continues to experience well over 1,000 Covid-19 deaths per day. Last week, he said he disagreed with Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said in an interview the country is “not there yet” on testing capacity.
The administration pledged to continue expedited approvals for tests and testing equipment and to continue supporting the development of a serological test use to determine whether individuals have already been infected with Covid-19. Deborah Birx, the physician who has coordinated much of the White House’s coronavirus response, said Sunday the U.S. will require a “breakthrough” in developing a serological test, stressing that their use will be vital to reopening the American economy.