Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), appeared on the Sunday political TV shows in the U.S. this weekend to reassure Americans that federal health authorities were prepared to tackle the coronavirus crisis, which has so far sickened at least 89 people in 12 states across the U.S. and killed two people in Washington. New York and Florida reported their first cases overnight. But many states still can’t conduct tests for the coronavirus locally, despite the federal government’s promise last week to quickly ship out tests.
Secretary Azar, who was president of the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly before he joined the Trump regime, told ABC News on Sunday that the U.S. has 75,000 tests “available” to states and that more tests would be arriving soon. But the definition of “available” isn’t entirely clear when you talk to state health departments across America, some of which are still waiting on delivery from the U.S. Centres For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We are not testing in Ohio yet,” Melanie Amato, press secretary for the Ohio Department of Health, told Gizmodo via email Sunday night.
“CDC is sending out test kits and we hope to have ours early this week,” Amato continued. “Once we validate the kit, we hope our lab will be up in running for testing. We hope to have that happening in the next two weeks. We currently still send our samples to CDC.”
U.S. states are able to conduct a swab test and send it to the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia for results. But that process can take up to 48 hours and delays the ability of local doctors to identify community clusters of the virus. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence is making promises that “15,000 test kits” are “in the mail,” as he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday.
The CDC initially sent out tests for the coronavirus in the first week of February, but they simply didn’t work in state labs, something that Secretary Azar blamed on the states in an interview with George Stephanopoulos yesterday.
“With historic speed, the CDC developed a lab test, we granted emergency use authorisation to it at FDA, we promulgated it out into the country,” Secretary Azar said.
“There was a third element to the initial test—because we do believe in quality testing here in the United States—there was a third element to the test that was specific to all coronaviruses,” Azar continued. “Some labs were unable to replicate and validate their own performance on that—CDC never had trouble with that.”
In reality, the CDC ignored the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for creating the test, according to ProPublica, and lost valuable time creating a more complicated test while the rest of the world started screening for COVID-19 in a serious way. Health authorities in South Korea, for example, have tested over 100,000 people, with 4,335 confirmed cases and 22 deaths. (South Korea is even offering drive-thru testing.) The U.S. has conducted just 3,600 tests, according to Secretary Azar.
As of this morning, the novel coronavirus has now been found in U.S. states like New York, California, Texas, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and Florida. In Texas, health authorities say that they expect to start local testing in a couple of weeks.
“Our lab isn’t doing testing yet, but we got instructions from CDC in the last few days on how to proceed with verification of the test they shipped,” Chris Van Deusen, Director of Media Relations at the Texas Department of State Health Services, told Gizmodo via email on Sunday afternoon. “We’re working through that now, as are the other public health labs in Texas that received the test. It usually takes a couple of weeks.”
Meanwhile, we learned last night that the CDC mistakenly released a Texas patient who later tested positive for coronavirus. The patient was flown back by the U.S. State Department from Wuhan, China and released from quarantine after testing negative for the virus. That test was obviously flawed in some way, though it’s still not clear what went wrong.
In Oregon, where they’ve conducted nine tests for the virus as of Sunday, the state has two confirmed cases.
“The Oregon State Public Health Laboratory is currently able to process up to 80 tests a day and is building surge capacity if needed,” Christopher L. Ingersoll, spokesperson for the Joint Information Centre at Oregon Health Authority, told Gizmodo on Sunday. “We have sufficient supplies on hand to perform approximately 1,500 tests and CDC has pledged to replenish our capacity as needed.”
In Colorado, lab capacity for testing is double that of Oregon.
“With current staffing and equipment resources, the state lab has the capacity to test up to 160 samples per day, assuming test kits from CDC are continuously available,” Jessica Bralish, communications director from Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, told Gizmodo via email Sunday night.
And that last part is the key: “assuming test kits from CDC are continuously available.”
Washington state reported its first coronavirus death on Saturday and its second on Sunday, but Americans who previously died of pneumonia-related illness prior to Thursday would not have been tested for COVID-19 under the CDC’s old guidelines. Researchers believe that the virus has been spreading in Washington for perhaps six weeks.
In California, one case at UC Davis Medical Centre in Sacramento wasn’t able to be confirmed for days because the patient didn’t fit CDC criteria for testing. The patient’s doctor eventually insisted that the CDC perform a test.
California Governor Gavin Newsom gave a press conference last week, asking for the federal government to help by sending more test kits. A spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health confirmed to Gizmodo on Sunday that 1,200 tests have arrived in the state from the CDC. But that’s only enough to test roughly a fraction of the suspected cases.
Other states are also trying to get their local tests up and running, and they continue to send their tests to CDC in Georgia for confirmation.
“We will be ready to begin testing later this week at Utah’s Public Health Lab. I believe we have tested 11 patients for coronavirus. All were negative. We have four we’re waiting to get results for,” a spokesperson for Utah’s Department of Health told Gizmodo via email.
Florida reported its first two suspected cases of the coronavirus on Sunday night and the governor declared a state of emergency, but local health officials assured Gizmodo the state is fully capable of comprehensive testing.
“Florida Department of Health laboratories in Tampa, Jacksonville, and Miami are now able to test for COVID-19 utilising CDC kits and following CDC guidance,” Alberto Moscoso, director of communications at the Florida Department of Health, told Gizmodo via email on Sunday afternoon.
Health officials in Iowa explained that while they still send out tests to CDC, any local tests that appear negative don’t need to be sent to CDC headquarters in Georgia for confirmation.
“Iowa has tested three individuals—2 were tested by CDC before states were authorised and one was tested this week after the authorisation. All were negative. We don’t know if or how many tests will be needed this week,” Polly Carver-Kimm, communications director at Iowa Public Health, told Gizmodo via email. “At this time, states that have a positive test must have the test confirmed by CDC. That is not necessary for negative test results.”
Azar is the former president of Eli Lilly and a former health care lobbyist, so he has some expertise in the area of public health. But Vice President Pence, the head of Trump’s coronavirus task force, has no such experience. In fact, Pence made some pretty fundamental errors while talking to Jake Tapper this weekend. As just one example, Pence talked about an American woman who “got her blood test back” for coronavirus. The coronavirus test is not a blood test.
And U.S. President Trump spent Monday morning tweeting out partisan attacks about the virus.
“I was criticised by the Democrats when I closed the Country down to China many weeks ahead of what almost everyone recommended. Saved many lives,” Trump tweeted without evidence. “Dems were working the Impeachment Hoax. They didn’t have a clue! Now they are fear-mongering. Be calm & vigilant!”
Whatever happens, Americans have reason to feel nervous as top health officials in the Trump regime make errors when communicating even basic facts about the outbreak. Trump, who has previously described Democratic Party’s concern about the outbreak as a “hoax,” announced on Saturday that a woman in her late 50s was the first to die. The patient was actually a man.