Top health official calls dearth of US coronavirus tests a ‘failing’

Acknowledgment came as lawmakers bristled at lack of available testing compared with other countries

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, arrives to testify at the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on “Coronavirus Preparedness and Response in the Rayburn Building on March 12, 2020.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, arrives to testify at the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on “Coronavirus Preparedness and Response in the Rayburn Building on March 12, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 12, 2020 at 5:00pm

A top U.S. health official told lawmakers Thursday that the U.S. health care system’s inability to test every potentially infected American for COVID-19 is a “failing.”

“The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we're not set up for that,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. “Do I think we should be? Yes, but we’re not.”

The acknowledgment came as lawmakers bristled at the lack of available testing compared with foreign countries.

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said after a separate briefing for senators by top health officials Thursday that he is not satisfied with coronavirus testing in the United States so far. Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, complained that the system relies too heavily on trust in the “private sector.” He said senators were told at the briefing that U.S. officials would be able to administer tests more efficiently “in the next week or two.”

“Expectations and reality have not met,” he said.

“We don’t have anywhere near the kind of testing that’s going on in other countries. And part of that is the way we do things. In our country, you got to go to a doctor, the doctor has to give you a recommendation or a slip to get a test and you get it. In places like South Korea, they’re able to go into a drive-thru clinic and get tested,” Romney added.

[Capitol comes under microscope even with new coronavirus guidelines]

Centers for Disease Control and Preventions Director Robert Redfield told lawmakers Wednesday that the U.S. doesn’t currently have plans to establish those types of drive-thru clinics, saying officials want to preserve relationships between patients and their doctors.

Fauci told CQ Roll Call on Thursday that the nation’s health care system prioritizes those relationships.

“The system is designed for a patient and physician interaction, not for the broader surveillance for this type of an infection,” he said after testifying before House Oversight. “If you want to do broad screening, you got to do something different.”

He added that U.S. officials should have a broader surveillance system up and running in a couple of weeks.

Concerns from lawmakers have risen in recent weeks as the testing problems have become more obvious. The Capitol Hill discussions Thursday came one day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and President Donald Trump announced travel restrictions to and from Europe. 

Testing challenges anger lawmakers

After the Thursday morning briefing, lawmakers expressed frustration about the number of test kits available. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said that was the topic that was most asked about in the briefing.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said there weren’t enough test kits available in his state.

“There is a severe disconnect between what the administration claims, and it has been entirely unspecific, and what's actually happening on the ground,” he said.

Senators said supply chain issues were making it harder for people to get tested for the virus, even if test kits are available.

“The challenge is, the supply chain has limited the amount of materials available to create them and get them in place in a reasonable time period,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said lawmakers are frustrated that they don’t have a specific date when testing will be more available.

“You can have a test kit, but if you run out of cotton swabs or protective gloves, or the other things that you need for the lab technicians or the basic chemical materials for the tests, you have a problem and we are going to have supply chain problems,” he told reporters.

Some lawmakers, however, said testing in their states has gone more smoothly. Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., said Pennsylvania’s Physician General Rachel Levine said testing occurred there in every case where a doctor determined that one was medically necessary.

Testing costs

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., pushed Redfield during the House Oversight hearing to agree to use existing authority that would allow the CDC to waive all costs for testing for the virus for all Americans, regardless of health insurance status. He initially responded that the agency was in discussions with the Department of Health and Human Services on how to operationalize free testing. After repeated attempts by Porter to persuade him to commit to using the authority, he complimented her abilities as a questioner and agreed. 

But before the hearing wrapped up, Redfield appeared to walk that back.

“We’re currently examining all avenues to try to ensure that uninsureds have access to testing and treatment, and we’re encouraging the use of the federally qualified health centers that can do this at reduced [costs] or free,” he said. “And we will continue to update both the Congress and the public on all available resources for this population.”

The issue of affordability and the administration’s overall response to COVID-19 is becoming a campaign issue as the leading Democratic presidential contenders and President Donald Trump traded jabs Thursday over the issue. 

Many health insurance companies have agreed to waive out-of-pocket costs related to testing, including for associated doctors’ visits. But lawmakers are still concerned that costs could deter patients from getting tested for the virus.

Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.