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CDC Criticized For Its Slow Release Of Coronavirus Testing Kits


How prepared is the U.S. to contain the coronavirus? It's a question we've been asking for weeks, and we're now beginning to see the answer play out. As of this morning, the coronavirus has infected more than a hundred people across the country. Six deaths have been confirmed, all of them in Washington state, which is where we reached Dr. Cameron Buck. He works at the University of Washington Valley Medical Center, which has treated a coronavirus patient. And he's president of the state's chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

CAMERON BUCK: Ultimately, we're trying to reduce transmission and control the outbreak the best we can. We are willing to deploy any best practice, whether that be self-isolation, quarantine, assessment, treatment - developing incidence, assessment and control as possible.

MARTIN: We also reached out to Dr. Elizabeth Meade with the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. She says they're warning people with symptoms to avoid public spaces.

ELIZABETH MEADE: We really are directing people, if they think that they've been exposed, to contact their primary care provider or use one of our express virtual care sites in order to talk about potential need for testing and how to get tested if they are suspected. We really want people to avoid going to the emergency room or urgent care and exposing other people if at all possible.

MARTIN: And we now know that a team of officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is on the ground in Washington state. There are questions, though, about how well the federal government is managing all of this. The CDC is under fire for distributing hundreds of faulty diagnostic test kits and imposing strict guidelines that slowed down local efforts to test for the virus.

Dr. Irwin Redlener is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, and he joins us this morning. Thank you so much for being here.

IRWIN REDLENER: Pleasure. Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Dr. Redlener, can you explain to us exactly what the issue was with these test kits?

REDLENER: Well, you know, for a long time after we were aware of the fact that coronavirus was in the United States and around the world, we were having to send all the samples for testing to the CDC in Atlanta, which of course takes a long time. We're talking about two or three days before getting a diagnosis. And eventually - it was about two weeks ago - the CDC produced a number of test kits - it was about 200 - which they sent out over the U.S, only to find out that those test kits were defective. And they had to pull back those test kits and only recently were able to perfect them and distribute them.

But even more encouraging, though, is what the states have been doing. There's quite a number of states now that have gotten approval from the Federal Drug Administration, the FDA, to produce and do their own testing. It's really, essentially, inexplicable why the CDC did not have well-performing test kits before now. But this delay has really been costly in terms of our ability to identify and control the disease.

MARTIN: FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn addressed this issue with the test kits at a White House briefing. Let's listen to this.


STEPHEN HAHN: We expect to have a substantial increase in the number of tests this week, next week and throughout the month. The estimates that we're getting from industry right now - by the end of this week, close to a million tests will be able to be performed.

MARTIN: Even if they have the capacity to perform a million tests soon, will labs be able to keep up?

REDLENER: Well, it's not clear. And the other - the problem now is that there have been a lot of people walking around in the general population who have this coronavirus so that we don't actually know who they are, where they are. And the testing is, you know, a dollar late and, you know, an hour short. And I think we're dealing with, really, a significant problem compounded by the fact that the test kits weren't available.

Just in contrast, we have 60,000 to 70,000 tests that have already been done in places like South Korea. And if we don't if we don't have those tests available, which we didn't for so long, we don't actually know the denominator. We're saying that there's 101 or 102 documented cases of coronavirus right now. But it actually could be multiples of that. So we have a lot of catching up to do. And every time we catch another positive case, we have to go searching for the context of that person.

MARTIN: Well, do people understand the context? - because CNN is reporting that the CDC has only released detailed information about one coronavirus patient, which means doctors treating other patients aren't benefiting from that clinical information. Is that unusual?

REDLENER: It's not only unusual, it's very dangerous. I'm trying to understand - and I think all of us in the medical profession - why that information is being withheld. I'm afraid there's been a tremendous amount of interference in what would normally happen in a public health crisis, interference by the administration - by President Trump and Vice President Pence.

And by the way, now our public health officials and experts are under a, you know, keep-silent order because all messages, all conversations with the media have to be now cleared through the vice president's office - another very unusual situation. And given the fact that the administration has been, let's say, less than forthcoming on so many levels with information generally and information about this coronavirus, this is really a very dangerous situation where we can't let the experts guide what's happening and so on.

But that said, Rachel, we still have a problem with why those test kits were defective in the first place. Part of the reason is the CDC has been cut in terms of funding over time, you know, relatively significantly. Who knows what their actual capacity to do things actually is? But in any case, I think the postmortem on this situation - what happened with the CDC - is going to be very unsettling for people. But we really do need to get our act together, figure out what went wrong but mostly focus on what we're doing going forward.

MARTIN: All right. Dr. Irwin Redlener from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. We'll check in with you again as this all unfolds. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

REDLENER: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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