The Columbus Dispatch

Broad blame for virus test scarcity

Biden and Trump flubs, broken care system cited

- Ken Alltucker and Michael Collins USA TODAY ANDREW JANSEN/USA TODAY NETWORK

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.

 ?? ?? Angela Hanson, right, a medical assistant with the Springfiel­d-greene County Health Department, administer­s a coronaviru­s test Friday in Springfiel­d, Mo.
Angela Hanson, right, a medical assistant with the Springfiel­d-greene County Health Department, administer­s a coronaviru­s test Friday in Springfiel­d, Mo.

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