As coronavirus cases swelled across the Sun Belt, hot-spot states including Texas and Arizona sought help from veterinary labs and mental-health clinics for testing capacity, but kept running into a shortage of materials, according to documents released Monday.
Several state public-health departments laid out plans to pour money into new staff and machinery but were bound by thin stockpiles of key materials, according to testing documents submitted last month to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and released on Monday. Officials told HHS that supplies needed to collect patient samples and chemicals called reagents used to process tests were difficult to come by.
Public-health experts say the shortages are a consequence of federal strategy that has largely deferred testing responsibilities to states, resulting in a patchwork response. Fall’s upcoming flu season could add further pressure on the country’s already-stressed testing infrastructure, state officials told HHS.
While the federal government has provided states with some testing materials, Texas said it has sourced its own swabs and that reagents that were available weren’t always compatible with its machinery. Arizona’s public-health department said it’s working with federal agencies and vendors “to obtain test kits which are in short supply and back-ordered.”
In a statement, an HHS spokeswoman said “over 50 million commodities have been shipped nationwide, including 41 million swabs [and] media and over 40 types of other resources have been deployed by the Trump Administration to support testing efforts” as of Aug. 8.
Officials in some states came up with workarounds to screen more patients, circumvent supply bottlenecks and cope with delays in getting results. Arizona began offering coronavirus tests at mental-health clinics and facilities for those with special needs and used a courier service to get patient samples to its labs faster. The Texas state public-health department brought in two university veterinary labs for help.
Public-health departments in places such as New York and California said they are turning to new technology like pooled sampling, which allows labs to process more than one sample at a time, and quick-turnaround antigen tests in hopes of reducing long waits for results and relieving supply challenges. The Food and Drug Administration authorized the first pooled Covid-19 test in July, and the first antigen test in May.
Health providers in New York and New Jersey are also hoping to use the pooling method to test for both Covid-19 and the flu, state officials wrote in their updated plans. A public-health lab based in Albany, New York, is working with the CDC to evaluate an assay that can test for both Covid-19 and the flu at the same time.
Meanwhile, even states hit hard by the pandemic in March don’t yet have the contact tracing capacity they expect to need. New Jersey has 900 contact tracers and plans to ramp up to 2,000 or more within the next few weeks, according to their testing plan. California officials are currently trying to hire 10,000 people as a foundation for their contact-tracing network, but anticipate they’ll eventually need double that amount to track the virus in their state.
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