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The Biggest Hurdle to the US Coronavirus Response: Lack of Testing

SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images

Coronavirus is spreading in the US. At least, we think it is. It’s hard to tell because despite the wall-to-wall news coverage of the epidemic and many confirmed cases in the US, getting tested for the virus is actually extremely hard right now. And that’s worrying for a lot of reasons.

One would think that if you’re sick and suspect you might be carrying the COVID-19 virus, that medical professionals would be rushing to get you tested so you don’t further spread the disease, but that’s not the case in most spots in the country. Tht includes Washington state, which has seen the most coronavirus deaths since the outbreak spread to the US. Despite that, it continues to be incredibly hard to get tested in Washington. Just looks at these responses to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Twitter.

Why is this? The virology lab at the University of Washington has the capacity to do thousands of tests a day, but only recently got clearance from the FDA to begin testing, but they’re nowhere close to capacity. This is happening across the country. Labs are ready, people are sick but testing isn’t happening. Despite the Centers for Disease Control promising that a million people would be tested by the end of this week, only 1,895 people in the US have been tested.

If there’s anyone to blame here, it’s the FDA, which regulates who can test, and, more importantly, CDC. The CDC sent out initial test kits in February, but they were contaminated. Since then, regulations and recommendations to only test certain people have led to delays and confusion. But most horrifying, the CDC just isn’t getting the testing kits out to people. This is in contrast to other countries that have done massive testing.

In California, which has a huge capacity to do tests, and also many potential cases, there is chaos. There are thousands of people with symptoms, or who have potentially been exposed, yet only a few hundred have actually been tested.

The ramifications of this failure are massive. When the testing finally gets ramped up, it is more likely than not that many tests will come back positive and that will look like a sudden spike in cases. In reality, it will be a spike in diagnoses. The failure to test widely also means that we won’t have accurate information about the death rate and treatment of the disease.

But most importantly, these failures are denying the public treatment providers, and denying authorities information they desperately need to contain and respond to this virus. If we don’t know who has it or where there will be panic everywhere. If no one is tested, they may spread the virus more easily or not be treated correctly until they are on death’s door.

This is just another massive failure by the current administration to respond to this crisis. It is not surprising, but it’s still incredibly dismaying and scary.

(via The Verge)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.