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Why Hospitals Still Don't Have Enough Supplies To Test For COVID-19


White House officials have repeatedly said there are enough coronavirus tests for states that want to begin lifting social distancing measures and reopening their economies. Here's Vice President Mike Pence yesterday.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We told the governors once again today that, by our best estimates, we have enough testing capacity today for every state in America to go to Phase 1.

GREENE: But some hospital officials say they still don't have enough tests for their own staff and patients. Dr. Bruce Meyer is the president of Jefferson Health, which has 14 hospitals in and around Philadelphia, Pa. Dr. Meyer, thanks for coming on the program.

BRUCE MEYER: My pleasure. Good morning.

GREENE: So let me just ask simply - do your hospitals - currently, are they able to conduct the tests they want to carry out right now?

MEYER: So we're short of testing in the way we would like to carry out testing in order to understand everyone who might be infected or has any kind of symptomatology, much less be able to catch asymptomatic carriers.

GREENE: So you said you're short of testing?

MEYER: We are. We're a relatively high-volume testing unit. We're classified as a high-volume testing unit. We're only able to do approximately a thousand to 1,200 tests a day because of limitations in supplies, like swabs and transport media, to transport the specimens but also in terms of chemical reagents that actually do the tests.

GREENE: So I want to make sure that our listeners understand that - I mean, 'cause there are a lot of aspects to this. You need swabs. You need something to send these tests, to transport them. And these reagents you're talking about, that's actually something you need to get the genetic material out of the the virus. I mean, what - you're missing all of those different things?

MEYER: So we're in short supply of all of those things, correct.

GREENE: Well, what process do you have to go through to try and get these supplies?

MEYER: So in terms of the testing supplies itself, like swabs and transport media, because we're a university, we have been able to make our own supplies through the university. So there is some limitation in the materials to make those, but we've been able to do that. And most places cannot unless you've got access to that kind of university equipment.

In terms of the reagents - and those are specific to individual vendors, like the commercial laboratories or even the CDC - it is a larger challenge for us because they've been very highly regulated by the government. And many suppliers get their direction as to where to send those reagents in terms of specific geographic hotspots or other kinds of priorities. So our capacity to test is really limited by the allocation of the reagents versus the true capacity that we would be able to run if we didn't have that constraint.

GREENE: So you're saying some of this is up to officials. I mean, are you essentially, like, competing with other hospitals to try and get your hands on these reagents that you need?

MEYER: Essentially, every day we're competing with other places that need testing. And based on volume of testing and based on whatever allocation methodology the government has, the scarce reagents get allocated to different sites and different organizations based on their ability to complete the tests.

GREENE: Can I ask, what do you do given the situation you're in? I mean, what are your hospitals doing in terms of prioritizing who gets tested and who doesn't if you don't have enough?

MEYER: So clearly, for us, testing of people who present with significant symptomatology as well as our own health care workforce - and that's not just what we would think of as front-line staff, like nurses and nurses aides, but also the environmental services workers who have to clean rooms and things like that and the rest of our staff in the hospital - those are our priorities right now. We don't really have the capacity to test every single person with minor symptomatology. We're doing our best to test as many of those as we can. But in reality, we don't have that kind of capacity right now.

GREENE: I just want to be really careful here because, I mean, we're hearing from from the federal government - at the federal level that the tests are available as states need them and that states should be getting close - in some examples, at least - to be able to reopen their economies. If you're saying that you are unable to test people who are mildly symptomatic, that sounds like we are not as far along as we need to be.

MEYER: We're not as far along as we need to be in order to sort of manage a steady state, trying to understand who might be infectious. So to move from where we are, which is sort of a mitigation strategy - trying to limit the number of people who are infected so it doesn't overwhelm the health system - to a containment strategy, where we're trying to identify people who have exposures, that - then we're not there. We're simply not there yet in terms of testing volume.

GREENE: Dr. Bruce Meyer is the president of Jefferson Health. They have 14 hospitals in the Philadelphia area. Doctor, thank you so much for your time this morning. I know it's a - must be a very busy period for you.

MEYER: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.