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Trump administration's approach to testing is chaotic and unhelpful, states say

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration's erratic approach to testing for the novel coronavirus has left state leaders and commercial laboratories confused, frustrated and unprepared for the fall, Democrats on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions found in a report released Thursday.

Labs and state officials said they were unsure who in the federal government to contact about supply issues, including whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency or Department of Health and Human Services was in charge.

"It is increasingly unlikely the nation will be prepared with sufficient testing capacity to meet the health and economic needs of the country by late summer or even into the fall," write the authors, led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "Disturbingly, several interviewees, including large clinical labs, reported that despite the Administration's assurances, they did not see how the United States would reach even a million tests per day by the fall."

The Trump administration this week began a temporary testing effort in three communities where cases are surging, an experiment to try to tamp down rising numbers of cases and hospitalizations.

"Under the leadership of President Trump, the United States has done more than double the number of tests of any country in the world," White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. "We are the global leader in testing capacity and continue to work in partnership with governors to ensure they have enough capacity to be open safely."

The Senate Democrats' report is based on interviews during the past two months with state health officials, clinical laboratories, test and equipment manufacturers and industry associations. It details supply chain issues that continue to this day, as states across the South confront coronavirus outbreaks with limited testing.

State leaders said they were forced to compete with each other and the federal government for supplies. When the federal government did step in, states sometimes got the wrong supplies or ones that weren't usable. Swabs were mislabeled; one state received baby swabs that were not sterile unless used immediately. Vials of fluid arrived unlabeled and leaking. One state leader told the senators they spent an "extraordinary" amount of time fixing these mistakes so the supplies could be used. Another state official said orders were canceled without explanation.

Personal protective equipment is still in short supply in some states, and test-makers warned that plastic is becoming a challenge. Labs say they are reluctant to invest in new equipment without assurance that supplies will be available to maintain it. They expressed concern about having enough supplies to test for both the novel coronavirus and influenza when flu season begins.

A mid-April forecast of lab capacity from the White House was "laughable" and "just ridiculous," one state official told the senators, because it was inaccurate and outdated.

"The lack of clarity and accuracy has made it nearly impossible for states and labs to rely on the Administration to help them accurately estimate their own capacity and supply needs," the report concludes.

The Democrats recommend putting a single federal official in charge of testing — and only testing. Currently, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir coordinates those efforts alongside other responsibilities. Congress should allocate more money for testing, they say, and the White House should distribute $14 billion already provided by Congress for that purpose.

They recommend HHS and FEMA institute new quality control measures and publish an inventory of testing supplies that identifies shortages and tells states what to expect when. They want Congress to compel production of certain supplies and to provide incentives for doing that.

The Democrats also called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release more specific modeling on testing strategies for schools, workplaces and nursing homes that reflects current shortages. Some of that guidance was released in the past week, recommending against universal testing in schools and most workplaces.

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