Health officials spoke before Congress on Tuesday about the spread and containment of COVID-19 in the United States. Nine people have now died from coronavirus in the U.S., all in the Seattle area.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now to a different story – responding to an anxious public, federal health officials announced today they are changing their guidelines so any doctor can order a test for the new coronavirus. The death count in the U.S. now stands at nine, with more than 70 cases reported. And while health officials say COVID-19 has not yet broken out into a full-blown epidemic, it could end up doing so.
Joining us to talk about this is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hi, Richard.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Just last week, it seemed like health officials were sharply limiting access to tests for the coronavirus. What drove this big turnaround?
HARRIS: Well, for weeks, access was very limited because the ability to test was extremely limited. Most samples had to be sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. And in order to keep that manageable, they had a pretty strict recommendation for who could and could not be tested. But after many weeks of struggling, it looks like, finally, the production of a test has been ramped up enough to – that could be used elsewhere in the country to allow much more widespread testing. And so it’s now up to individual doctors to ask for.
SHAPIRO: And are there enough to go around?
HARRIS: Well, I do expect some growing pains in the short run. The FDA decided a few days ago to let a company called IDT start mass-producing a test that – it was actually the test that the CDC developed. Today at a Senate hearing, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said that with that effort, he could end up with a million tests in hospitals by the end of the week.
HARRIS: Yeah, and – but, you know, also at that hearing, Washington senator Democrat Patty Murray said she’s been hearing skepticism from health experts in her state about that.
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PATTY MURRAY: Do you really believe that a million tests will be available by the end of this week?
STEPHEN HAHN: Senator, let me just to explain that one. So the companies that we’re working with on this – they have the capacity to develop 2,500 test kits by the end of the week. That should give us the capacity, in the hands of laboratories – once they validate – to perform up to a million tests.
MURRAY: Twenty-five-hundred kits will…
HAHN: Kits – and 500 tests per kit.
HARRIS: Right. And later on today, we learned that they’re thinking maybe they could even do a million a week moving forward in – for production. But, of course, just producing the tests is one part of it. You have to gather the samples, which are nose and throat swabs. It takes expertise to run these tests, and people will have to learn how to do that. It won’t be available in individual doctor’s offices, but it can be mailed off or sent off to laboratories that do have the ability to test. So we don’t know how quickly all this is going to happen and how quickly labs will actually be geared up and ready to run these tests, but it is clearly a big step forward.
SHAPIRO: And what about the cost? How expensive will these tests be?
HARRIS: Well, we’re told that it will be covered by Medicare and Medicaid. And just like any other laboratory test, if you have health insurance, it’ll be covered like any other lab test.
SHAPIRO: We keep hearing that the risk to the average American is quite low, so is there really a need for coast-to-coast testing?
HARRIS: Well, today, I think, it’s fair to say that if somebody has flu-like symptoms, it’s probably just the flu. But, you know, cases of the coronavirus are now starting to pop up in lots of places. For example, in North Carolina, they diagnosed their first case. It was somebody who had visited a nursing home in Seattle, got on a plane and ended up in North Carolina. So now they’re wondering, what about other people on that plane? What about the other people that this person has been in contact with?
Also, cases in Rhode Island, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Illinois – you know, the hope is still that if you – each time you find a case like that, if you can track it down right away and find out who else is exposed, you can put an end to it. But at some point, that’s a roll of the dice you’re going to lose. And I think we’re heading in that direction.
SHAPIRO: That’s NPR’s Richard Harris with the latest on availability of the test for the new coronavirus.
Thank you, Richard.
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