Congress included $25 billion for coronavirus testing in its recent aid package and told the Trump administration to quickly expand capacity, develop better and faster tests, and create a “strategic testing plan.” It’s frustrating that lawmakers needed to spell this out. The White House should have long recognized the need to support and coordinate state, local and private efforts.
Months into the pandemic, testing capacity in the U.S. has improved but is too small to show how quickly the virus is spreading. This makes reopening the economy hazardous. Even when the rate of transmission has fallen enough to allow some easing of restrictions, it won’t be safe to let people congregate until new infections can be quickly identified and isolated. There’s a risk, otherwise, of flare-ups and even a second and worse wave of the disease this fall. Once COVID-19 is eventually brought to heel, a national testing strategy will be needed to confront the next emerging virus.
Granted, even though President Donald Trump told states testing was their job, the White House has helped some — boosting swab production, rustling up test kits and supplies, and increasing payments to laboratories for expansion. But the administration failed in its most crucial task: coordinating state and private efforts. Public and private laboratories have competed for supplies, and governors have been forced to scramble. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called on his Korean-speaking wife to negotiate a deal for 5,000 test kits from South Korea suppliers.
Some states have managed better than others, in the absence of clear national standards on how much testing is needed, and without consistent help in finding labs with capacity. An effective national strategy would help states, cities, hospitals and private labs work together.
The good news is that efforts to expand testing capacity are starting to pay off, if more slowly than most would like. In the past week, 1.75 million people were tested in the U.S. But public health officials want to see that number double. Former Food and Drug Administration leaders Mark McClellan (from the George W. Bush administration) and Scott Gottlieb (from the Trump administration) said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention needs to set standards for all 50 states to test widely and conduct “contact tracing” to find and isolate everyone exposed. So far no states have sufficient capacity, though systems are being set up in Massachusetts, New York and California.
The Health and Human Services Department can use its $11 billion in state testing funds to ensure tests are high-quality and meet standards for thoroughness, and that complete data are reported electronically. Age, race, location and health status are needed to show how COVID-19 works. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can also use financial incentives, setting reimbursement rates to reward labs for using the most effective tests.
Millions of them need to be done every week — until a vaccine brings immunity. States should be expected to manage their own operations well. But they could do that much better with guidance and support from Washington.
— Bloomberg News