US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (L) speaks next to US President Donald Trump during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 6, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Topping a week of conflicting statements from the administration about how many tests the U.S. is now able to administer for the coronavirus, President Donald Trump on Friday told reporters at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta that “anybody who wants a test gets a test.”
U.S. health officials started the week by defending themselves to members of Congress for a shortage of tests across the country. That shortage, along with tight restrictions from the CDC on who could be tested, allowed infected people to go undetected and further spread it, say health experts.
After being rebuked for the delays, Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn on Tuesday told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that, with the aid of private sector partnerships, the government would be able to test roughly a million individuals by the end of the week.
But by Thursday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters he expects public laboratories this week to test 400,000 people. Later that day, Vice President Mike Pence said “we don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward.” Pence is leading the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
A spokesperson for the CDC did not respond to requests to confirm the number of people who have been tested for the coronavirus.
Part of the administration’s hope in expediting its testing capability was partnering with the private sector to help make up for limitations created by what experts say is an underfunded public health system.
The CDC is partnering with Integrated DNA Technologies to manufacture the tests under a CDC contract. IDT is partnering with commercial labs, including LabCorp and Quest for the testing, both companies have confirmed.
“What was different was this response,” said John Auerbach, CEO of the Trust for America’s Health and former head of the CDC’s policy office. “The administration said it wasn’t just going to use public health labs as its core — it was going to say to the commercial sector, you develop these, get them out the door. … [But] that assumed they had the capacity to get these kits out the door.”
“But there are no real mechanisms for monitoring how much their capacity is — it’s kind of a wild west.”
LabCorp said Thursday its coronavirus test would be available at 6 p.m. that day. Quest said its test would be available Monday.
Meantime the number of infected people continues to grow. There are at least 245 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Pence said Friday that 21 people on the Grand Princess cruise ship off California have tested positive.
The growing count has led to mounting frustration by many in Congress over what they say are the president’s conflicting statements and a lack of transparency amid a public health crisis.
“They won’t disclose how many test kits are now available or when they will be fully deployed, but we know that they haven’t come close to the one million mark,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., in a statement to CNBC.
“Congress has done its job in providing emergency funding for the Administration to acquire, stockpile, and distribute an adequate supply of diagnostics,” Schakowsky wrote. “The question remains, is this Administration capable of doing so?”