Trump administration still struggling to ramp up coronavirus testing

“The last lots are here being validated by Dr. [Steve] Monroe’s team as we speak,” Azar said Friday during a visit to the CDC’s Atlanta headquarters. He said that “up to 4 million tests” would be available by the end of next week.

The Trump administration is struggling to provide a clear picture of how many people are being tested for the coronavirus. Conflicting, and sometimes misleading, statements by top officials have fueled confusion over how many samples labs are processing, and how quickly that number could grow.

“We’ve already tested over 3,600 people for the virus,” Azar said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We now have the capability out in the field to test 75,000 people.”

Two days later, CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat told the Senate health committee that her agency had tested more than 3,000 specimens taken from roughly 500 people — a fraction of what Azar claimed. That same day, an FDA spokesperson told POLITICO that state and local public health labs had enough supplies on hand to test 15,000 people, but said that capacity would grow to 75,000 people by the end of the week.

Sen. Patty Murray, the Senate health committee’s ranking member, slammed the mixed messaging, saying it hinders businesses’, schools’ and families’ ability to make informed decisions. The Washington Democrat’s home state has been hit hard by the coronavirus, with at least 75 confirmed cases and 12 deaths so far.

“It is deeply concerning and utterly unacceptable that top-ranking Administration officials charged with responding to this crisis are confusing people and contradicting health experts rather than giving them the facts,” Murray told POLITICO.

When asked about the discrepancy between Azar comment’s on “Face the Nation” and Schuchat’s testimony, an HHS spokesperson told POLITICO that Azar correctly said 3,600 tests, instead of 3,600 people, at a House Ways and Means hearing last week.

At least 23 states have now confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including clusters of community-acquired infections in Washington state and New York.

The administration has faced increasing criticism over the slow roll out of testing, driven by problems with a diagnostic test the CDC developed for use in public health labs across the country.

Seventy-two public health labs in 45 states and Washington DC had verified CDC’s diagnostic test for the coronavirus as of Friday, according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories. But the group cautioned that each lab can only test 100 samples per day, and at least two samples from each patient must be tested to arrive at a diagnosis.

“We’re rapidly expanding our testing capacity, so these numbers will change,” an HHS spokesperson told POLITICO. “Moving forward, we expect exponentially more tests to be distributed as additional manufacturers ramp up production.”

Commercial lab companies, such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, are beginning to run their own in-house coronavirus tests with permission from the FDA, but an industry source told POLITICO that private labs will be limited to a few thousand tests per day at first.

“For really high volume you need to get the platforms from the manufacturers,” the source said. “If you’re going to have something that really ramps up the throughput, you’re going to need the Abbotts, the Thermo Fishers. It will take some time.”

Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.