Trying to make up for lost time, the CDC will distribute 1.1 million COVID-19 tests by this weekend

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In a press conference late on Friday, Vice President Mike Pence said that the government will finally have the capacity to provide over 1 million tests for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Joined by representatives of the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the vice president detailed the continuing efforts from the White House to coordinate a response to the spread of the coronavirus.

The CDC will distribute test kits capable of testing over 1.1 million people by the end of the weekend, and another 1 million tests will be in quality assurance testing by next week, according to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn.

Initially the White House had hoped to have distributed the test kits by the end of the week, but was not able to ramp up to meet that demand. Now, Pence is saying that the capacity to conduct at least 2.1 million tests will be available by next week — and that a consortium of private testing companies will add still more capacity as time goes by.

Yesterday the White House announced that it had established a consortium of the nation’s largest private testing companies, which are now mobilizing to provide test kits to commercial and private institutional testing facilities around the country. Attendees at the White House meeting yesterday included LabCorp, Quest Diagnostics, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Abbott Laboratories and the Mayo Clinic, according to reporting from Reuters.

Earlier this week Lab Corp said it would begin offering immediate tests for COVID-19, while Quest Diagnostics said it would start testing next week. The two private test manufacturers will be able to charge for their tests, while the ones conducted by the CDC and state run facilities are free.

On Wednesday, the Trump Administration declared that the COVID-19 test would qualify as an essential health benefit — which means Medicaid and Medicare would cover testing costs. Under the Affordable Care Act (which the administration is trying to unwind) large-employer health plans must cover the cost of health benefits like preventive testing — but those tests don’t have to be free, according to CNBC reporting.

Until last week, only labs that were approved by the CDC could administer tests for the coronavirus, but the CDC opened new testing facilities for people potentially infected with the virus after an outcry from state and local governments.

While the government is touting the capacity for testing, the actual numbers are falling far short of official claims, according to a report in The Atlantic.

The report claims that only 1,895 people have been tested for the coronavirus in the U.S., and about 10% of the people tested have contracted the disease. Even with the new tests available to states and local governments, the capacity only allows for several thousand tests to be conducted — not the tens of thousands the White House has hoped for, according to the report.

Meanwhile, official reporting at the CDC is lagging behind other indicators, painting a far different official picture of the spread of the disease than the one that’s reflected by realities in the aggregation of local government reporting. According to the latest data from a disease tracker provided by Johns Hopkins University, there are 299 cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. The CDC is only reporting 164. 

The reason is that the government stopped reporting the total number of cases and has left that to the States. As the Atlantic reports:

 In South Korea, more than 66,650 people were tested within a week of its first case of community transmission, and it quickly became able to test 10,000 people a day. The United Kingdom, which has only 115 positive cases, has so far tested 18,083 people for the virus.

Normally, the job of gathering these types of data in the U.S. would be left to epidemiologists at the CDC. The agency regularly collects and publishes positive and negative test results for several pathogens, including multiple types of the seasonal flu. But earlier this week, the agency announced that it would stop publishing negative results for the coronavirus, an extraordinary step that essentially keeps Americans from knowing how many people have been tested overall.

The CDC has justified its lack of tracking by saying that it couldn’t accurately reflect the number of tests conducted as states take responsibility for their own testing.

“States are reporting results quickly, and in the event of a discrepancy between CDC and state case counts, the state case counts should always be considered more up to date,” said Nancy Messonnier, who is responsible for overseeing CDC’s response and research into respiratory diseases.

Ultimately, the U.S. government seems to be [finally] ramping up its response to the spread of the virus here by providing health officials with the tools they need to accurately test for how widely the disease has spread in the population, while at the same time making it much harder to communicate the information the public would need to make educated choices on how to respond.