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Coronavirus Testing Capacity Remains A Problem Nationwide


The availability of coronavirus testing depends, in part, on where you live. We have perspectives from three states this morning. We're joined by Montana Public Radio's Corin Cates-Carney, Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek and NPR's Leila Fadel in Los Angeles. Good morning, guys.


SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Corin, let's start in Montana. The Trump administration says tests are more available every day. How's that match up with what you're seeing?

CORIN CATES-CARNEY, BYLINE: So in Montana, Governor Steve Bullock was on a phone call with President Trump earlier this week and said Montana is just one day away from running out of tests. And what he meant by that is that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only sends about 600 tests a day to the state, and the state can't get more - a new batch - until they've used up the old one. And that really creates a small room for error in Montana because the state is trying to run 500 tests a day.

Here's a piece of tape from Governor Steve Bullock. He spoke with reporters earlier this week.

STEVE BULLOCK: So that if we lost one day, or if all the sudden we had a huge spike in testing, all of a sudden, we'd start creating a significant backlog along the way.

CWIEK: So here in Michigan, it's been mostly local leaders, particularly the mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, and some county leaders, who've been taking the lead on securing tests and kind of setting up testing sites. But really, at this point, the bulk of the tests are being performed in hospitals.

FADEL: And in California, local and state leaders also taking the lead, setting up testing, expanding testing. But California Governor Gavin Newsom sounded skeptical that there would be enough of these rapid tests mentioned by the White House to be the solution to a national shortage. Here's what he said at a briefing this week.


GAVIN NEWSOM: But I want to caution folks on this. The scalability of some of these promoted testing protocols - 10-minute home test, 45 minutes, whatever it is - the scalability is not there as advertised. And I say this 'cause we're practitioners of this. We have the resources, and we're deeply engaged with these companies.

FADEL: So he's saying in California, he and other local officials are still talking to every company it can find that makes tests.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the scalability, meaning can you do millions of tests? And then there's the question of can you process millions of tests after they're taken, right?

FADEL: Right, exactly. That's a big issue here in California. Testing capacity has definitely grown, but the latest publicly released data in California says there have been more than 86,100 tests as of Monday. And that's just 0.2% of the population of this state. But the majority of those tests - 57,400 - are backlogged, people waiting sometimes 12 days for results. Meanwhile, local and state officials are scrambling to ramp that number of tests up.

INSKEEP: Sarah, what about Michigan?

CWIEK: So in Michigan, there - we're actually not releasing numbers about how many people overall have been tested. We just know how many tests have been completed. We're expanding capacity here pretty rapidly at this point and scaling up. But we're coming from a really, really low point and a late start. We've tested just many fewer people than even other states who are similarly hard-hit.

INSKEEP: Corin, if there's a limited number of daily tests in Montana, who gets them first?

CATES-CARNEY: So like people in other states, people are still being turned away from tests in Montana. Doctors here, you know, say they're following CDC priority guidelines. And Montana Governor Steve Bullock, he says he's looking forward to the rollout of that new rapid-response testing, but there's really no timeline for when that's going to happen.

CWIEK: So in Michigan, we're really looking at, for the most part so far, only testing the most high-risk people - people who are in hospitals. We're getting more to where we're testing more police and first responders. Detroit police, in particular, have been hit extremely hard by this.

Some of those rapid-response tests that you heard about are - have just arrived here in Michigan. And those first responders and health care workers will get first priority for getting those tests.

INSKEEP: OK, that makes sense, I guess. Bus drivers also can be a priority, which makes perfect sense. They're being asked to keep the transit systems open and have contact with lots and lots of people. But what about people who are not at the front of that line?

CWIEK: For people who are not at the front of that line, they are - I've talked to some folks recently. Most recently, it was a woman named Monique Baker McCormick. She lives in Detroit. She's a Wayne County commissioner. Her daughter goes to Western Michigan University out in Kalamazoo, Mich. She tried to get tested at a clinic out there for COVID-19. She initially could not get tested. She eventually was, and she was positive for COVID-19. She got her test results 13 days later, after she had gone home to Detroit. Unfortunately, a fellow student at Western Michigan who was in the same position - his story did not turn out so well. This is Monique Baker McCormick.

MONIQUE BAKER MCCORMICK: He came back home to Detroit, passed it on to his parents - or his mother. And they found out that he did have it, and he died.

CWIEK: And that young man was a senior. He was about to graduate - just 25 years old. But McCormick's larger point here is that, you know, colleges and universities are releasing all of these students who are presumably at very high risk for carrying coronavirus, but they are just not getting tested at all for the most part because they're considered very low-risk.

INSKEEP: Corin, is the disease narrowly enough spread in Montana that there still seems to be a chance to contain it with proper testing?

CATES-CARNEY: So health officials here think, you know, based on the available data that Montana can watch and learn from some of the struggles in these larger, more populated areas and really focus on containment here.

But at the same time, yeah, they say that, you know, they really need a lot more tests to do a more aggressive contact tracing, where they reach out to people who've been in contact with a positive case, test them and then isolate the person with the positive test themselves, and that's really with the goal of stopping those transmission chains. But doctors here I've talked with say there really isn't enough testing going on right now to get a full picture of where the virus is in Montana.

INSKEEP: Well, let's end in the nation's most populous state, where you have tens of millions of people who are at risk. What is the critical issue there, Leila?

FADEL: Well, nobody has any idea what the scope of the spread of the virus is. These positive case numbers coming out of states, cities, counties - they don't mean much when the scale of testing is so low. How do you contain a spread that you can't measure?

The CDC is now saying 1 in 4 people infected may not show symptoms, so health care workers say they feel like they're working blind because any person could have it and unknowingly be spreading it. And that's why millions of people in this state, in this country are on stay-at-home orders and remain on stay-at-home orders.

INSKEEP: Two seemingly contradictory thoughts here. One is maybe you don't need the test as an individual because your treatment might not change that much if you're sick. But the big picture - we just don't know the big picture because the testing isn't there. Leila, thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Leila Fadel in California, Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek. Thanks to you, Sarah.

CWIEK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Montana Public Radio's Corin Cates-Carney, thanks to you.

CATES-CARNEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LAST SIGHS OF THE WIND'S "PHOBIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October, 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit. Before her arrival at Michigan Radio, Sarah worked at WDET-FM as a reporter and producer.
Corin Cates-Carney is the Flathead Valley reporter for MTPR.
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