Former acting CMS chief Andy Slavitt worries that undercounting coronavirus cases is lulling some states into a false sense of security that is enabling the virus to spread farther and faster.
“There’s a perfect storm I worry about in certain states where their commonality is that they have low testing and low social distancing guidelines,” Slavitt told POLITICO. Oklahoma, for instance, has put in place limited “stay at home” guidelines that apply to the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions, rather than the general public.
Individual states’ testing struggles also mask the true size of the national coronavirus outbreak, says Mike Carome, director of the health research group at the advocacy organization Public Citizen. “The failure to do testing in some states is giving us an under representation of the scope of the pandemic,” he said.
Texas, which has a per capita testing rate of just 124 people out of every 100,000, ran out of coronavirus tests Tuesday after processing its last 40 tests at state public health labs. Any further testing of Texas residents must be done by commercial firms unless public labs get more testing materials, said Tom Banning, CEO at the Texas Academy of Family Physicians.
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Health Services told POLITICO late Tuesday that while one public health lab in the southern part of the state is currently unable to conduct coronavirus tests, samples are being shipped to a lab in Austin to be tested. “It is absolutely false to say that all testing must be done by private companies,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Banning said a point-of-care test is needed “that we can stand up at health clinics or retail establishments like drug stores.”
The FDA recently authorized the use of rapid coronavirus tests from Cepheid, Abbott and other diagnostic manufacturers, but it will take them to roll them out, said Jeff Engel, former executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.
The rapid tests can be administered in doctors’ offices, with results delivered before a patient goes home — much like more familiar tests for flu or strep throat. But that convenience comes with its own trade-offs.