Enlarge /. WESTMINSTER, MD – MARCH 16, 2020: Dawn Canova, clinical director of outpatient wound care at Carroll Hospital, takes samples from people to test for the coronavirus at a transit station in the hospital's parking garage. The station was inaccessible to testing and was set up to take samples from people who had spoken to their doctors and who were specifically instructed to test the novel coronavirus called COVID-19.
While the United States continues to have difficulty accelerating basic tests for COVID-19, experts from the World Health Organization stressed on Monday that countries should prioritize such tests – and that social distancing measures are not enough.
"We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test," said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (aka Dr. Tedros) at a press conference on March 16.
Dr. Tedros noted that, with the rapidly increasing number of cases and deaths outside of China, many countries, including the United States, have taken so-called socially distancing measures, such as closing schools, canceling events, and working from home, urgently. While these measures can slow down the transmission and allow health systems to cope better with them, they are not enough to wipe out the pandemic, warned Dr. Tedros.
What is needed is a comprehensive approach, he said. "However, we have not identified a sufficiently urgent escalation in testing, isolation, and contact tracking that is the backbone of the response," said Dr. Tedros.
"The most effective way to prevent infection and save lives is to break the transmission chain," he continued. “And to do that, you have to test and isolate. You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we can't stop this pandemic if we don't know who is infected. "
The message was sharp for the United States, which has been trying to increase its testing capacity. While other countries have carried out hundreds of thousands of tests since the Hubei province broke out in January, estimates indicate that the United States has only tested about 38,000 people – a majority in recent weeks. In contrast, South Korea tested almost 20,000 people every day.
In a number of press conferences over the past few days, members of the Trump administration's Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, have announced plans to dramatically increase the country's testing capacity, including partnerships with private companies. The officials have suggested that the country will soon be able to test tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people a week.
However, confidence in the plans was shaken by clumsy descriptions and exaggerations. This includes President Trump's announcement on Friday that Google is developing a website that will allow people across the country to determine whether they should be tested and help them set up tests in a local laboratory. The announcement surprised Google. The sister company Verily has meanwhile published such a website, but only serves people in the California Bay Area and has so far not offered any useful information or services.
While WHO experts recommend a thorough screening of suspected cases and contacts to be one step ahead of the transmission, the Trump administration has so far primarily emphasized screening people with striking symptoms who largely identify themselves as candidates for the screening. Officials also said that testing for healthcare workers and for people over 65 who had symptoms would be a priority.
"We don't want everyone to do this test. It's completely unnecessary," President Trump said in a press conference on Friday.
To date, the United States has discovered over 4,200 cases in 49 states and in the District of Columbia. This number is expected to be well below the actual number of cases due to the delayed and limited testing. 74 deaths have been reported in the United States.
There are over 181,000 cases in at least 148 countries worldwide. More than 7,000 people have died.