President Donald Trump has recently hailed the United States’ advancements in coronavirus testing even as the number of cases in the country continues to mount.
“The United States has done far more ‘testing’ than any other nation, by far!” Trump claimed on March 25. On April 2, Trump repeated this claim, saying that the US was “now conducting well over 100,000 coronavirus tests per day … which is more than any other country in the world, both in terms of the raw number and also on a per capita basis, the most.”
Despite these claims and the increased testing capacity, the US has still lags behind other countries in testing per capita.
According to figures from the COVID Tracking Project, the US has tested just over 2.9 million people as of April 13, or just about one in every 112 people, though some states like Iowa have completed far fewer tests than states like New York and California. Other hard-hit countries have administered far more tests per capita: As of April 13, Germany has conducted over 1.3 million tests, or about one in every 63 people, while Italy has conducted tests on over one million people, equal to roughly one in every 57 people.
Data from the Association of Public Health Laboratories indicates that as of April 12, there are 95 laboratories that have been successfully verified and are currently using COVID-19 diagnostic tests. But how these diagnostic tests go from testing sites to a lab remains a long and complicated task.
Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times, traced these tests, from the time they are taken by a nurse at a testing facility to the time they are delivered to labs to be confirmed, and found a number of roadblocks delaying the diagnostic process.
Callimachi began her journey at a drive-thru testing site in Paramus, New Jersey, and observed hundreds of people in cars lined up, many from the night before, to have their test taken once the facility opens at 8 a.m. local time.
According to Callimachi, this particular site only tests 500 residents per day. Among the qualifications to get tested, people need to present a New Jersey ID and show symptoms of the coronavirus.
Once the tests are administered, they are shipped to labs for analysis. But according to Callimachi, many labs have been overwhelmed by a backlog of tests, and so tests are sometimes shipped to further locations in other states. The US only allowed private labs to begin testing on February 29. According to Callimachi, these private labs have taken on the burden of COVID-19 testing, and test specimens are shipped in from around the country.
The New Jersey specimens that Callimachi followed were diverted to a lab in Chantilly, Virginia, over 270 miles away. The tests were then driven to an airport and flown to Virginia, encountering delays due to weather along the way. Once at the Chantilly facility, tests are painstakingly loaded by hand into machines that analyze samples, she said. The enzymes needed to process the samples are also in short supply, according to Callimachi, leading to caps on the number of tests that can be processed per day.
Callimachi said that in some cases, it is days before people are told whether they have tested positive or negative.
“Initially, the strain came from a lack of test kits, but now there are not enough nasal swabs, not enough nurses,” Callimachi wrote. “There is a pileup at the labs themselves and a limited supply of the chemicals needed to identify the virus.”
As the US continues to improve its testing capabilities, several mistakes were made early on that stalled the testing process, which the US is still catching up on. Test kit shortages and potentially faulty kits initially stalled health authorities’ abilities to monitor the number of infections. And Quest Diagnostics, one of the US’s biggest testing companies, has said it has a major backlog of tests from when the private lab was first allowed to begin testing in late February.
“In approximately the first two weeks of providing testing, we experienced a sharp influx of test orders that continued to outpace our growing capacity through March,” the company said in a statement.
“There was so much promise and fanfare about the commercial laboratories being to take on the bulk of the testing in the country,” Kelly Wroblewski of the Association of Public Health Laboratories told NPR last week. “But the demand is so incredibly high. And the capacity to process and do the testing is stretched incredibly thin.”
This content was originally published here.