By Michael Wilner
Tribune News Service
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is bracing for a “spike” in coronavirus cases this week as 2,000 labs across the country begin performing a new, rapid-process test for COVID-19.
As of Sunday night, 62 Americans had died of the novel coronavirus, which has infected over 3,200 people across every state except West Virginia.
But government officials widely suspect the disease has infected far more, and that increased testing will uncover the true extent of its spread.
“You will notice as these tests roll out over this next week, we will have a spike in our curve,” Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters at a press briefing on Sunday. “We are going to see that. We are going to see a spike as more and more people have access.”
Members of the White House coronavirus task force said that the new commercial laboratory tests, approved by the Food and Drug Administration with exceptional speed last week, will begin supplementing what they acknowledged had been a “manual, somewhat slow” testing system previously run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention out of public health labs.
Adm. Brett Giroir, who leads the administration’s response to the testing challenge, said the country had entered a “new phase” as over 1.9 million of the tests, produced by Roche and Thermo Fisher, become available as of Monday.
“Hundreds of thousands of individuals per week” will now be able to get tested, Giroir stated.
The goal of the new system beyond testing as many people as possible, he said, is to prioritize the elderly, first responders and health care workers _ and to avoid overburdening hospitals that are widely expected to receive an influx of coronavirus patients as the pandemic spreads.
Already, Birx is warning of “pent up demand” for the tests that will challenge labs and hospitals to maintain the basic supplies necessary to perform them.
To that end, the administration is focused on creating points of care in communities nationwide where Americans experiencing symptoms can go and get tested.
Drive-thru testing sites are being set up in parking lots of retailers and elsewhere to handle the demand, officials said. These sites will allow individuals to remain at a distance from one another instead of possibly infecting others at a hospital or a doctor’s office. Administration officials said they are working with companies like Walgreens and CVS to set up testing in parking lots outside of stores.
Ten states — including Florida, New York, Washington and Texas — are already operating drive-thru testing, in addition to testing that has slowly ramped up from CDC labs, public health labs, and labs that have been authorized by individual states to perform tests of their own.
Birx encouraged people to allow the elderly to pass them in line as they wait for a test.
“I know everyone is going to want to go to these drive-thrus,” Birx said. “We ask you to prioritize them in the lines.”