The Columbus Dispatch
Broad blame for virus test scarcity
Biden and Trump flubs, broken care system cited
More people than ever are getting tested for the coronavirus as its highly contagious omicron variant shatters records with about a half million new cases every day.
But the fast-moving variant has exposed the nation’s testing capacity as insufficient, a situation exacerbated by the holidays as companies test returning employees and schools and universities screen students and staff. Confronted with empty store shelves or lengthy lines at testing sites nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, frustrated consumers, doctors and public health workers wonder who’s at fault.
Medical experts point to missteps by both Biden and Trump administrations, a fragmented health care system and low vaccination rates.
An average of more than 2 million Americans got tested each day for the coronavirus over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University’s testing tracker that compiles data reported by federal, state and local governments. The tracker does not include results from many home tests.
Biden administration officials warned the omicron wave could severely test hospitals and push demand for daily tests up to 3 million to 5 million over the coming weeks.
The share of positive tests reached a pandemic record of 25% over the past week. The World Health Organization considers that anything over 5% indicates that not enough tests are being done, leaving too many asymptomatic people to unknowingly spread the virus.
A year ago, President Joe Biden touted plans to expand testing while executing an unprecedented vaccine rollout. Tens of millions of Americans got vaccinated and cases declined last spring, prompting testmakers to scale back production.
Biden’s latest testing fix includes a plan to offer 500 million free home testing kits, which would be mailed to the homes of those who want them. Manufacturers restarted closed factories to meet the nation’s persistent demand.
“We can’t be complacent,” said Mara Aspinall, an Arizona State University professor who runs the Rockefeller Foundation’s national testing action program. “What we’ve learned is our optimism got ahead of reality, and we can’t let that happen again.”
Doctors said the nation must continue to promote vaccines that protect people from serious illness and keep them out of hospitals.
Biden took office last Jan. 20 promising that his administration would improve testing for the virus and get the deadly pandemic under control.
While campaigning, he excoriated the Trump administration for its handling of the health crisis, arguing that the failure to make testing widely available allowed the virus to spiral out of control.
A year later, Biden conceded his administration was caught off guard by the omicron surge and should have done more. “It’s clearly not enough,” Biden told the nation’s governors Dec. 27 during a virtual meeting when discussing the distribution of at-home tests. “If we had known, we would have gone harder, quicker if we could have.”
Public health officials said the planned distribution of a half billion home tests has come too late.
“It would have been much better if we had had a couple hundred million accurate, proven tests available way before now,” said Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician and founder of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University in New York.
The White House insisted that tests have become more widely available in the past year and that the lines at testing centers have been caused by a surge of people seeking tests amid the rise of the omicron variant.
Under the Trump administration, the initial test kits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent to state public health labs were contaminated and contained a design flaw, delaying efforts to track the virus during the critical early weeks of the pandemic.
Congress authorized billions of dollars to bolster testing, including reimbursing private labs to provide widespread testing that public health labs could not complete on their own. In the summer of 2020, as the virus swept through the Sun Belt during a second wave, overwhelmed labs took a week or longer to process tests. The delayed results were of little use to track and trace the virus.
The rapid antigen testing market emerged, first with small testing machines used in doctor’s offices and urgent care centers, then in disposable, portable testing strips that could be used at home. They were a quick, easy and inexpensive way to track the virus.
The Trump administration purchased the first 150 million Binaxnow antigen tests made by Abbott Laboratories and purchased tests made by Quidel and Becton, Dickinson.
“We basically bought everything, and the industry knew as much as they could make, we would buy,” said Brett Giroir, a pediatrician who served as assistant secretary of health overseeing the Trump administration’s testing efforts.
The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization last March for the Abbott and Quidel home tests. The home tests don’t need a prescription and are sold directly to consumers through retailers such as Walmart, Amazon, CVS and Walgreens.
The home test supply crunch came after Abbott Laboratories and Quidel cut production in the spring when testing demand dropped. As the delta variant drove a surge in testing over the summer and fall, the companies had to again hire factory workers and restart production. Because the two largest testmakers slowed production, the kits have been hard to find for consumers, “and we’re just playing catch-up right now,” Giroir said.
Major manufacturers crank out millions of tests every day. One dozen companies have received FDA emergency use authorization to market home antigen tests. That includes large manufacturers Roche and Siemens, which are new entrants to the U.S. home coronavirus testing market but supply tests overseas.
Abbott said it has opened new U.S. factories, hired thousands of workers and invested in automation to ramp up production.
Aspinall projected home test capacity will soar to at least 500 million each month by March.