Expert: US coronavirus testing ‘nowhere near what it needs to be’

Apr 13, 2020, 11:55 AM

Coronavirus, Ebola treatment, testing...

Coronavirus samples being tested in a lab. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

As health experts continue to push for an expansive testing system as a necessity to safely reopen the United States, the country continues to lag behind other nations’ efforts.

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“We may be able to start getting some people back to work if we find out that they have already had the disease and therefore are unlikely to be re-infected,” Columbia University’s Dr. Angela Rasmussen told the Gee and Ursula Show. “Our testing capacity is nowhere near what it needs to be to answer those questions.”

That’s a sentiment that has been echoed by government health officials. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn told ABC’s This Week that when it comes to testing, “we need to do more — no question about that.”

“We have to substantially enhance our public health capacity to do early case identification, isolation, and contact tracing,” CDC head Dr. Robert Redfield agreed when speaking to The Today Show. 

What’s setting the U.S. testing response back so significantly months into its outbreak? Dr. Rasmussen theorizes that “initial delays in the government response” may be to blame, with the country’s early action marred by setbacks in developing and widely distributing the first round of tests.

“That really set us back,” she noted.

She also pointed to the fact that just 2 million people have been tested across the United States, totaling less than 1% of the country’s population.

Between that and a lack of serological testing — essentially running blood tests to figure out how many people had the virus and eventually recovered — it’s difficult to determine just how many people may be able to return to work.

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“We absolutely need to have an understanding of how many people actually have COVID, as well as how many people have had COVID and might potentially be immune to it,” Dr. Rasmussen said.

With a lack of testing both for active and past coronavirus cases, some researchers believe we’ve only been able to confirm as few one in every 20 total infections. That would put the actual number of coronavirus cases in the United States near 10 million, instead of the over 564,000 cases we’ve been able to confirm so far.

Ultimately, safely reopening parts of the country where the outbreak has begun to subside could depend on a commitment to ramped-up testing we have yet to see.

“We need that level of testing, and we’re nowhere near being able to test that many people within our population,” Dr. Rasmussen said.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Expert: US coronavirus testing ‘nowhere near what it needs to be’