US launches ‘surge’ testing targeting virus hotspots

The US has announced it will set up “surge” testing sites in several states suffering large increases in coronavirus cases and hospitalisations, as authorities struggle to contain the outbreak in the south and west of the country.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced on Tuesday it would temporarily increase federal support to Jacksonville, Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Edinburg, Texas, where there had been a “recent and intense level” of new infections and coronavirus-related hospitalisations.

The sites will have the capacity to test 5,000 people a day for the next five to 12 days. The health department said the regions were chosen because testing was “fairly evolved” in those places. Surge sites could reveal coronavirus cases that would have otherwise gone undetected, particularly among asymptomatic or younger residents.

Florida and Texas have been two of the hardest-hit states during the new outbreak, with the number of cases surpassing 200,000 in both states; Louisiana has reported more than 66,000 cases. Late last month, Florida and Texas rolled back some reopening plans, while Louisiana has paused further lockdown easing.

Officials had hoped their efforts to expand testing would enable local governments to contain new outbreaks by tracking new infections and tracing them to others who have been exposed.

But while the US has increased its testing capacity to about 640,000 a day, Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health, acknowledged that turnround times for results at some of the large commercial laboratories were increasing, as tests for hospitalised patients are prioritised.

While lab capacity had not yet reached a maximum, “we are certainly pushing the frontiers”, Adm Giroir said.

“We cannot test our way out of this,” he added. “If there is very high transmission with very high positive rates, testing alone is not the answer.”

As some states begin to ease back open after months in lockdown, the demand for testing has risen. Some local officials, including in New York City, have said that a shortage of reagents — chemicals used to process tests — had led to delays of a week or longer in getting results.

North Carolina is facing a similar problem. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, said fewer tests were being run because reagents were in short supply.

North Carolina-based Labcorp said last week it had experienced a “steady increase in demand for molecular testing” that might increase the average waiting time for results by a day or two.

On Monday, the number of new infections nationwide topped 47,000, according to the Covid Tracking Project, boosted by a record number of cases in California.

Even though daily new cases remain near their peaks, the number of deaths has continued to trend lower from their highest points earlier this year.

President Donald Trump has touted the low fatality rate, as the White House continues to press for the economy to reopen despite the recent jump in cases.

On Tuesday, Mr Trump said he would encourage governors to open schools this autumn. Florida, where cases are still rising, on Monday ordered schools to reopen next month. Some colleges and universities have announced plans to move all or some of their courses online this fall.

Anthony Fauci, the US’s leading infectious disease expert, acknowledged that the number of deaths was falling, in part due to the declining median age of people who tested positive — younger people are less likely to develop fatal complications — as well as the development of some therapies to treat critically ill patients.

But during an event on Tuesday with Doug Jones, a Democratic senator from Alabama, Dr Fauci warned against thinking that a lower rate of fatalities meant that the crisis was subsiding.

“It’s a false narrative to take comfort in a lower rate of death,” he said. “There are so many other things that are very dangerous and bad about this virus. Don’t get yourself into false complacency.”