Fixing the Testing Shortfall

Newsom vows to increase testing in state by fivefold.

California is finally making a dent in the backlog of tests for the novel coronavirus that, at peak, left 65,000 people waiting to find out if they were infected. But that still isn’t good enough, Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a briefing over the weekend where he announced a new effort to increase daily tests fivefold.

The effort, helmed by a new testing task force, will create five to seven of what Newsom called high-capacity testing “hubs” through a new partnership with UC San Diego and UC Davis. The goal is to increase high-capacity testing and end a massive backlog that, at times, has left people waiting as many as 12 days to receive results.

“All of that frustrating [to] you is certainly frustrating me,” he said. “The testing space has been a challenging one for us, and I own that, and I have a responsibility as your governor to do better, and to do more testing in the state of California.”

Newsom’s latest update tallies 126,700 people who have been tested for the virus that has landed at least 1,008 people with confirmed infections in the intensive care unit, and killed more than 237 people.

Of those 126,700 people tested, 13,000 are still waiting on results, Newsom said. It’s a sharp decrease from the 59,500 tests with results that were still pending as of Thursday. But it’s still not good enough, Newsom said.

Newsom attributed the backlog in part to reporting from one of California’s largest counties — he did not say which ones. Slowdowns have also come from the commercial labs handling testing for California, and Newsom commended them on the new numbers: “We congratulate them for the good work.”

Across the nation, testing for the novel coronavirus has lagged — hampered by both bureaucratic slowdowns and technical flaws.

After opting to design its own test rather than using an existing protocol published by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention distributed glitchy tests that produced uninterpretable results. And it took the U.S. Food and Drug Administration until the end of February to give labs the go-ahead to create tests themselves.

Since then, the CDC has corrected the flaw in its original test, but the testing supply chain remains riddled with shortages. First, labs in California reported that they were missing key ingredients for extracting genetic material — including the virus’s — from patient samples. Then, the swabs for collecting those samples became scarce.

Competition for supplies is a source of anxiety even at UC San Diego, where David Pride, associate director of the clinical microbiology lab, said the team aims for a 12-hour turnaround on test results. “The truth of the matter is that we are competing … all for basically the same sort of slice of the pie, so we can test our patient population.”

It’s a common story across the state.

As cases of the novel coronavirus balloon in California, testing has lagged — particularly at commercial labs. At Kaiser Permanente’s hospitals across California, turnaround for tests conducted in-house is about 24 hours, according to spokesman Marc Brown. But the turnaround for tests Kaiser sends to outside labs is anywhere from three to nine days.

Mike Geller, spokesman for commercial testing company Labcorp, said that its turnaround time was from four to five days; Kimberly Gorode, spokeswoman for Quest, said Friday that Quest’s was the same.

Newsom acknowledged the shortfall in California’s coronavirus testing in his Saturday briefing, saying, “I own that, and you deserve more and better.”

To that end, he announced that he had formed a testing task force helmed by Charity Dean, assistant director at the California Department of Public Health, and Paul Markovich, president and chief executive officer of Blue Shield of California.

He also alluded to a new test created at Stanford University to determine if someone has developed an immune response to the novel coronavirus. The test has not yet received FDA authorization, but Newsom said he was expecting that to change, soon.


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