A month after President Trump declared a national emergency and announced commitments from some of the country's largest companies to expand testing capacities in the United States, most regions still don't have access to the tests and equipment they need.
When the president stepped onto the podium in the Rose Garden in March, surrounded by executives from the country's largest pharmacies and retailers, including Target, Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens, it was expected that the nation would soon experience an explosion of testing facilities that offer them could be the kind of population-scale tests required to cope with a nationwide outbreak.
President Trump also said at the time that a team of 1,700 Google engineers were developing a triage tool to assess whether someone should be tested for COVID-19 and to send them to locations where these tests could be done .
Reality has far missed these expectations. Google was not responsible for the development of the triage tool described by the president. The development work was done by another subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and had completed 3,700 tests by the end of March. The company was able to set up four test sites across California in two weeks.
Efforts to make screening available in pharmacies across the country are also lagging behind. Last week, Walgreens announced that the company would expand its transit inspection capabilities to 15 locations in seven states. This is done from a single location at the end of March. Each location can test 3,000 people a day, the company says. And CVS will expand from a single location in Massachusetts to four locations with two locations in Massachusetts and one each in Rhode Island and Georgia. 1,000 people can be tested daily at its locations.
Meanwhile, Target hasn't opened a single facility.
"At this point, federal, state, and local officials continue to plan for additional test sites," a Target spokesman said in a statement to National Public Radio. "We are committed to offering our parking lots and supporting their efforts when they are ready to be activated."
Both CVS and Walgreens are using Abbott's new ID NOW COVID-19 test, but neither company is testing to the extent deemed appropriate by medical professionals to drive a major reopening of the US economy (which some experts were) advocating from the start May).
In fact, the speed of testing in government and private institutions across the country is lagging behind, also because only people with severe COVID-19 symptoms are tested for the disease.
As Vox reported last weekend, the US tested South Korea's rate at 74% – where testing and tracing largely prevented the outbreak from becoming too severe – and doesn't even approach the test level of other hard-hit countries like Canada, Germany, and Italy.
Part of the problem is the lack of the necessary equipment to carry out tests on the required scale. States are trying to find vital personal protective equipment for healthcare workers who are at greatest risk of exposure to COVID-19, but are also running out of the equipment they need to test patients.
Just today, the Los Angeles Times reported that the necessary test smears may no longer be available in New York. "It's still an atmosphere of tremendous scarcity," Times Mayor Bill de Blasio quoted. "I spoke to the President and other key members of the administration … that's the crucial need."
Ford today announced a partnership with Thermo Fisher to alleviate the lack of test kits and personal protective equipment. However, it is by no means the only company that starts working on this particular shortcoming. Last month, private developers of 3D printing technologies such as Carbon, Markforged, and FormLabs announced that they would begin manufacturing personal protective equipment and the test swabs required to run COVID-19 tests.
But even with more swabs, there may not be enough testing capacity to meet the increased demand.
Quest Diagnostics, one of the private test companies that process COVID-19 tests, already has a two-day backlog of cases, according to its latest test statement.
Quest, LabCorp, and the lobby group they represent in Washington have turned to the White House to provide more support, according to an NPR report, to improve their ability to test potentially infected people.
At the beginning of March, the companies made three inquiries to the government: financing for the construction of new test facilities; Standards to ensure that tests are adequately performed and administered to the right people; and support to get the necessary supplies for testing. So far, the companies have not received this guidance or support, according to the NPR.
According to a Duke University report co-authored by Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner and partner in the multi-billion dollar venture capital New Enterprise Associates, testing remains the linchpin for successful attempts to successfully curb the spread of COVID-19 .
"The ability to perform rapid diagnostic tests for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms and for those at risk of exposure or higher risk of contracting or transmitting the virus (healthcare workers, workers in assembly environments) with a robust Sentinel monitoring system that Routine surveillance Infection of the population groups so that small outbreaks, especially in vulnerable population groups, can be identified at an early stage, is the first step of a successful containment plan, according to the study.
Even Google and Apple's efforts to develop contact tracking technology must be supported by more robust testing capabilities.
So far, the United States has not even met the test goals set by the president in the rose garden. "It will be very quick," he said of the new test approval process. “It's going very quickly – which will bring an additional 1.4 million tests next week and 5 million tests within a month. I doubt we'll need that nearby. "
That Friday in March, when the president made his speech in the rose garden, 2,006 people had tested positive for the disease and 42 people had died.
To date, the U.S. has performed 2,935 million tests, with 576,774 positive cases, 2,358,232 negative cases, and 17,159 cases awaiting approval. And 23,369 people in the US died of the disease.