Why Most of Us Can't Get Tested for Coronavirus

More than a week after Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in response to the global COVID-19 outbreak, California health officials still have no idea how many residents may have been exposed to the coronavirus due to a lack of usable test kits.

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In California and throughout the country, testing is still largely reserved for the elderly, individuals with underlying health problems, and those suffering from a fever or cough. The number of patients tested in the U.S. over the past two months is still far fewer than the number of patients South Korea tests each day.

The tests are not complete

Gov. Gavin Newsom

On Thursday, Gov. Newsom expressed his frustration over the lack of usable test kits California labs have received from the federal government.

“I continue to reinforce that the tests are not complete, meaning in every case, the tests do not include the RNA extraction kits, the reagents, the chemicals, the solutions that are components of the broader test,” he said. “This is imperative that the federal government . . .  and labs across the U.S. – not just the state of California – get the benefit of all the ingredients that are components of the test.”

Gov. Newsom Blasts Federal Govt. for "Incomplete Tests"

The governor compared the missing components to “going to the store, purchasing a printer, but forgetting to purchase the ink.” He added, “you need multiple components, so it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure those components are intact.”

Currently, the state has the capacity to conduct 8,227 tests and has conducted just over 1,500 to date.

“I am surprised this is not more of the national conversation, we need to focus in on these tests,” Newsom said.

The nine-county Bay Area is home to more than 7 million people. More than 300 million people live throughout the country. Nationwide, just over 11,000 tests have been conducted, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control. Those figures, however, only represent the number of specimens tested, not the number of actual patients. A single person may be required to submit up to three specimens in order to be tested for the coronavirus – that can include a swab of the nose, throat, or coughing up phlegm into a cup. As a result, the exact number of people who have been tested in the U.S is unknown. It is clear, however, that the figure is significantly smaller than other countries.

South Korea Has Tested 200,000+ People for Coronavirus

South Korea discovered its first case at about the same time as the U.S., but has managed to test more than 200,000 residents, even opening drive-thru testing centers where patients can simply pull up and get swabbed.

In San Francisco, Kaiser Permanente recently began a pilot program featuring its own sort of drive-up testing site. Patients, however, cannot show up unannounced. They must first get checked out by a doctor who then must refer you to get tested.

Where Do Testing Kits Come From?

The CDC created America’s test for the virus, which it then distributed to public health labs across the country. In the wake of growing demand, universities and private labs, including Quest Diagnostics and LabCorps, designed their own tests to diagnose even more patients.

By April, Quest Diagnostics expects to perform tens of thousands of tests each week. LabCorps tells NBC Bay Area the company can now test several thousand people a day. UCSF is currently testing about 40 specimens a day, but hopes to increase that to 160 tests through a partnership with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. UCSF is reserving those tests for its own hospitalized patients but hopes to be able to offer testing to outpatients in the future.  Neither the nonprofit nor UCSF could say when the increased testing capacity will take place.

In the wake of the test shortage, tests are being reserved for the elderly with underlying health problems and patients already exhibiting symptoms, such as a fever or respiratory problems. Even if a patient meets the stringent requirements, the only way to get tested is to first obtain a referral from a doctor or an order from the public health department. Simply being exposed to someone known to be infected with coronavirus isn’t enough to be prioritized for testing. 

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