Health and Science

Top US health official says coronavirus testing system is 'failing,' cases now confirmed in 44 states

Key Points
  • A top U.S. health official said the country is "not really geared" to conduct the amount of testing for the coronavirus that will be required as the virus continues to spread across the nation.
  • There are now 44 states, as well as Washington D.C., with confirmed cases of COVID-19. 
  • The virus has infected more than 1,300 people and has killed at least 38 in the U.S. 
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, listens during a news conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 2, 2020.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A top U.S. official said the nation cannot process coronavirus tests as quickly, easily or in the same volume as other countries — even as the virus spreads to 44 states — and that's "a failing." 

"The system is not really geared to what we need right now, what you are asking for. That is a failing," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Thursday at a hearing on the nation's preparedness for the outbreak.

"The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we're not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we're not," Fauci testified. 

The virus has now spread across 44 states and Washington, D.C., Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced during the hearing.

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The CDC has the capacity to process between 300 and 350 tests a day, Redfield said. He said other systems that can process thousands of specimens are coming online with private labs LabCorp and Quest. Public health labs just aren't set up to process a high volume of tests quickly, Redfield and Fauci both testified.

"The system right now as it exists of doing a much broader capability of determining what the penetrance is in society is, right now, isn't operational at all for us," Fauci said, adding that the CDC is currently trying to set up broader testing in six cities. Instead of waiting for people to ask for a test, they will test all patients who have flu symptoms for coronavirus to try to estimate how much of the U.S. population has the virus.

On Tuesday, Redfield testified at a separate House budget hearing that a lack of funding has hampered the federal government's response to the outbreak. The CDC's tests were initially marred due to quality control issues, which delayed tests for Americans who thought they were infected and prompted some states like New York to seek emergency approval to use their own kits. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday he asked 28 state labs to "get up, get running and start moving forward" with coronavirus testing after he criticized the CDC and the FDA for being unprepared to test in the quantities necessary.

"The truth is we've under-invested in the public health labs," Redfield said. "There's not enough equipment, there's not enough people, there's not enough internal capacity, there's no search capacity."

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. has reached more than 1,300, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and at least 38 people have died from the virus. Globally, there are more than 127,000 confirmed cases and at least 4,717 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.