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New York said Friday that a new federal approval will allow it to soon conduct more tests in a day than it has carried out to date.
Federal and state authorities pushed ahead Friday with attempts to improve the speed and availability of testing to determine whether people have the new coronavirus as the disease continues to drive a national public health crisis.
The nation’s limited ability to test for the virus has sparked outcries and frustration among the public, as well as from many state and local officials, as even some people exhibiting symptoms of the illness say that they have been unable to get tested for it.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Thursday acknowledged at a House hearing that the testing system the nation has had in place was “failing”—although he elaborated on that comment on Friday.
President Trump, speaking at the White House on Friday, outlined plans to expand testing and announced new agreements with private companies. Up to two million additional tests are expected to be available by next week, according to the White House.
Companies like Walmart and Walgreens said they would allow portions of their parking lots to be used for drive-thru tests.
“We want to make sure that those who need a test can get a test very safely, quickly and conveniently, but we don’t want people to take a test if we feel that they shouldn’t be,” Trump said.
“We don’t want everyone running out and taking," he added. "Only if you have certain symptoms.”
The developments on Friday came as Trump declared a national emergency in response to the coronavirus, which causes a respiratory disease known as Covid-19.
Trump also said that Google is working to develop a website to screen people to determine whether they should get tested, and to direct them to testing sites. Verily, a research organization focused on life sciences that is part of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., later said it was “developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing.”
“Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time,” the company added in a statement.
Fauci, during the White House event, said that the system the federal government had in place for testing was not designed for the kind of demands that were now being placed upon it.
“Looking forward, the system will take care of it,” he said.
“If you want to get the kind of blanket testing and availability that anybody can get it, or you could even do surveillance to find out what the penetrance is, you have to embrace the private sector,” Fauci added. “And this is exactly what you're seeing.”
But those assurances may be of little comfort to those who are already feeling ill and are worried that they have Covid-19.
“The doctor said he wanted to test me, but the San Diego County Department of Health criteria wouldn’t allow him to,” 38-year-old Morgan Thornberry, who went to an urgent care earlier this week with a fever, a dry cough, and nausea, told The Atlantic.
In the states, government officials continued to grapple with how to handle the outbreak.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, speaking on MSNBC on Friday, agreed that there were still not enough coronavirus tests available. “We are dealing with that problem in each of the states and we are trying to fix it,” he said during an interview with Katy Tur.
Hogan noted the increase in private testing and other efforts, such as by Johns Hopkins University in his state, to make screening more available. The governor also said that, in his view, halting the spread of the disease and increasing hospital capacity are both more critical than focusing on the failure to test people.
“Everybody is trying to work on it, but I don’t believe they can ramp up fast enough,” Hogan said. “We have moved on from testing to other things right now.”
“We have moved from containment to mitigation and quite frankly at some point soon we won’t be into testing so much because hospitals will be overwhelmed and unable to do the test,” he added. “So, we are looking at how do we ramp up hospital capacities and what we can we do to take care of folks.”
New York, meanwhile, received federal approval to authorize testing for cases of the new coronavirus at 28 public and private labs in the state, a move that Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Friday would greatly expand the state’s capacity to test people for the illness.
To date, New York has conducted about 3,000 coronavirus tests. The increased capacity will allow for about 6,000 tests to be carried out per day, within the next week, the governor’s office said. The Food and Drug Administration gave the greenlight for the testing.
“We'll be able to do about in one day all the tests that we have done to date, believe it or not,” Cuomo said during a press conference.“The more you test, the more positives you find. The more you can isolate. The more you can reduce the spread” the governor added.
On Friday, New York also opened its first drive-thru Covid-19 testing center in New Rochelle. Other states have set up similar sites.
New York had been demanding federal approval for the expanded testing for weeks, according to the governor’s office. The state reported its first confirmed case of the illness on March 1.
Trump issued a memorandum on Friday that said as states ask for flexibility to authorize labs to develop and perform tests used to detect Covid-19, the secretary of Health and Human Services should take appropriate action to accommodate the requests.
Federal officials are expected to provide further details about their efforts and test availability on Sunday.
The FDA has now approved a system for testing from Roche, a biotech company, that health officials say should allow for testing to move faster. New York said the approval it had received from the federal government would cover the Roche platform.
New York, along with Washington state, are two of the states with the most confirmed cases so far of Covid-19. On Friday afternoon, New York had confirmed 421 cases, 50 of which had resulted in people being hospitalized.
Eighteen of the hospitalized patients are in intensive care units. Cuomo said the state has about 3,200 intensive care unit beds and 53,000 hospital beds in all. He noted that Italy ran into problems when it’s hospital system became overwhelmed by the virus' fast spread.
“We do not at this point have the capacity to create additional ICU beds,” the governor said.
Political leaders have been taking steps to limit the spread of the disease by limiting social contact between people, such as by banning large gatherings or closing schools.
Public health experts and others say these efforts are aimed at the concept of “flattening the curve” of the disease outbreak. This is a reference to slowing its spread, so that cases occur more gradually over time, rather than in a rapid spike in the near term.
“If you don't flatten that curve, the wave is a tsunami that totally swamps the existing hospital system,” Cuomo said.
Staff correspondent Andrea Noble, and managing editor Laura Maggi contributed to this report.
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Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.