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Coronavirus Test Kits Are In Shortly Supply, Vice President Pence Says


As the number of coronavirus cases increases across the U.S., the Trump administration makes an admission.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We don't have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward.

MARTIN: That was Vice President Mike Pence speaking yesterday. The administration is promising to expand testing capabilities, but the delay is concerning for public health officials, given that at least 233 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the U.S., and at least 12 people have died.

Joining us now in studio is Lauren Sauer. She is the operations director of the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, and she's going to be moderating a briefing about the coronavirus today on Capitol Hill. Lauren, thanks for coming in.

LAUREN SAUER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So we heard the vice president there say there aren't enough kits to meet demand. Why?

SAUER: Well, there's a few challenges associated with testing right now. So I'm sure everyone's aware of the fact that the tests failed on the initial rollout. And since then, they've pushed tests back out to the health departments. But there is - with these broader definitions of who qualifies for tests, there's an increased need for the supplies that go with the test, such as the reagents and all the materials associated with testing.

MARTIN: OK. So a couple different follow-up questions there. How has the definition expanded for someone who would qualify to be tested?

SAUER: Sure. So a person who becomes a PUI - or a person under investigation - it used to be they had to have travel history associated with Wuhan or Hubei province in China. And now anyone who a physician feels like warrants testing can actually get the test and become a PUI.

MARTIN: So where does that leave individual patients? I mean, we're hearing that the symptoms are not unlike, you know, more severe forms of a cold or flu. At what point do you think to yourself, oh, this - I need to go to a doctor because I think this is coronavirus, and I should be tested?

SAUER: Yeah. It's kind of like a double-edged sword because you want more people to be tested so that you understand how the disease is spreading in the community, but if testing is limited because of the material needs, then you try to test the people who are most likely to have the disease - so someone who has had contact with someone already having coronavirus or someone who has traveled to an area where you're seeing regional spread or community transmission.

MARTIN: We reached out to Dr. Mark Jarrett. He's the chief quality officer for Northwell Health. This is a New York hospital chain. And Dr. Jarrett had criticized the response by the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control. Let's listen to what he had to say.

MARK JARRETT: We would have all loved it if we had all gotten kits sooner, but I honestly believe, you know, the CDC tried to get things up and running as quickly as they should. But it has made it harder for us because it would have been easier, even at this stage of the spread, if we had, you know, a lot of testing kits because then we could, you know, easily rule out who does not need to be hospitalized or where there are problems and where there aren't.

MARTIN: Could the kits have been made available any faster? I know you're talking about the different materials that were needed, but why were - why are those in scarce supply?

SAUER: Yeah. I think there's a lot of issues with why the kits have not been rolled out in a more broad scope. So the first issue was this initial quality issue with the CDC test. So I think a lot of us think that they could have resolved that faster by either moving to the WHO test or somehow otherwise fixing that reagent issue and then pushing it quickly and broadly to state health departments. The other option could have been that they moved towards allowing lab-developed tests, so individual clinical labs in hospitals and in research labs - moving towards giving them the emergency use authorization faster.

MARTIN: And we've heard now that different companies - LabCorp, for one, is developing - they have developed their own test that should be unveiled or used, employed soon.

SAUER: Yeah. So that'll definitely increase capacity. The one thing you worry about with that is that if anyone can get a test - and we're hearing that there may be reagent issues - that the right people are not getting tested. So you want to ensure that you have the materials for the sickest people to get tested and get into and through the hospital system quickly.

MARTIN: President Trump has now signed an $8.3 billion spending bill to help combat the coronavirus. Where do you think that - is the most urgent need to put that money towards?

SAUER: I think the key is to put it towards the health system. So part of that is ensuring that we have broad-scale testing. Part of it is ensuring that our PPE supply is really deep, so we have all the materials...

MARTIN: That's personal protective equipment.

SAUER: Personal protective equipment, yeah, so especially the masks and the gowns and the gloves and the eye protection. And then ensuring that our hospitals have enough staff, enough space, can expand their capacity to take on these patients. We are hearing many of them are really, really sick when they get to the hospital. So I think the health care system is the exact place to focus.

MARTIN: What do you want the public to know and understand critically in this moment?

SAUER: Wash your hands - that is the No. 1 thing. And don't go to the emergency department unless you would go even if there wasn't a coronavirus outbreak.

MARTIN: Lauren Sauer is the operations director for the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response. We so appreciate you coming in this morning. Thank you.

SAUER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.