America is ramping up COVID-19 testing, but a shortage of basic supplies is limiting capabilities

image of a test tube with covid-19 marked positive

(Photo by Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Donald Trump touted increased testing capabilities for Covid-19 in a letter to the nation’s governors this week, but a series of interviews with representatives from a wide swath of states has revealed officials hamstrung in their abilities to test, report and track the deadly virus.

Despite Trump’s assurance Thursday that “with each passing day, our increasingly extensive testing capabilities are giving us a better understanding of the virus and its path,” catastrophic shortages in swabs for medical providers has forced states to be creative in acquiring and distributing samples for coronavirus testing.

Even states with smaller populations like Wyoming have found themselves limited by a dearth of swabs to use in test kits. The federal government sent the state three testing kits last week, each with the capacity to test between 700 and 800 patients, but public information officer Kim Deti in the state’s public health office told CNN the limiting factor has been collecting and transporting the samples.

“There’s a lot of confusion on the testing, they might be running out of things to collect the swab, but we’ve got enough to run tests at these facilities,” she told CNN in an interview Monday.

Wyoming has responded to its severe shortage by calling on the state’s Department of Transportation to distribute make-shift test collection kits, containing swabs, test tubes and viral transport mediums to medical providers across the state.

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“We received some materials from the federal government, and then some of our staff at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory, they created some sample collection kits that we sent around to counties for distribution … we made something like 3,000 kits that we distributed around to our counties so that they could have a little bit more supplies for sample collection,” Deti told CNN Friday.

On Thursday, Florida Democratic Reps. Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel wrote a letter to US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar urging him to provide them with an adequate amount of swabs and necessary materials for collection and transport of patient samples to laboratories for testing.

Though Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, announced Florida’s capacity to administer Covid-19 tests for up to 625,000 Floridians, a lack of supplies, including swabs, means only an estimated 30,000 people have been tested to date, per data from the state’s Department of Public Health.

“We’re not doing enough testing in our state,” Deutch told CNN’s New Day Thursday. “We have no idea how many cases there really are because we’re testing so few people.”

“As soon as we get this stuff here or in Orlando we’re getting it out,” DeSantis told reporters during a press conference Friday. “All of this stuff is in such short supply around the world and around our country, but particularly involving these collection swabs to take the samples. As soon as we get them we push them out. So we’ll be pushing out a thousand swabs to Miami-Dade, another thousand swabs to Broward, another thousand swabs to Hillsborough (counties).”

Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun echoed the sentiment in an interview Friday, telling CNN, “It is really unfortunate. We were incredibly late as a country really with getting our supplies. Supplies meaning testing supplies, supplies that my lab — my state lab — could run enough tests so people could get the swabs, you know of their nose, to be able to get the tests done.”

In Ohio, residents are being told to stay home if they exhibit symptoms of coronavirus because they don’t have enough swabs to test for the virus.

Dan Tierney, spokesman for the Ohio governor’s office, told CNN earlier this week that while the state is trying to conserve PPEs, it does not have enough swabs for testing, saying they’re made in Italy and on short supply due to the coronavirus crisis in the country.

“People are going to be asked to ride it out at home,” he said.

Former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb sounded the alarm on a potential swab shortage earlier last week, writing in a tweet dated March 16: “The weak link in supply chains are often low margin products, where there’s consolidated suppliers and relative under-investment — precisely because the products are lower margin and therefore don’t attract investment capital. Swabs could be a weak link in broadening testing.”

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In a statement Friday, Puritan Medical Products, one of the leading manufacturers of nasopharyngeal (NP) swabs in the US, told CNN, “As a leading manufacturer of COVID-19 testing supplies, Puritan is working virtually nonstop to produce and rush supplies to the testing and medical professionals who urgently need them.”

“This tremendous surge in demand for COVID-19 swabs and transport systems has resulted in inventory and order delays for many of our products at this time,” the Maine-based medical supply company wrote in a statement. “As a trusted source for testing supplies, we’re in close contact with government agencies and the Coronavirus White House Task Force gathering the latest information on COVID-19. It is our goal to continuously supply and support all distribution channels during this challenging time.”

States in dire need of swabs have been forced to turn to new sources of testing supplies in fighting the pandemic.

Formlabs, a Boston-based 3D printing company, announced in a news release Friday that they’d begun printing and testing swabs needed to collect samples, partnering with New York and Florida hospital groups.

“Currently we are printing and optimizing swab designs co-created by doctors at USF Health and Northwell Health, as well evaluating designs from other leading hospitals,” the company wrote in a statement.

West Virginia, the last state in the country to report a positive coronavirus case, was only able to ramp up testing earlier this week after scraping flu test kits of swabs and extraction kits, State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Slemp told CNN.

Continued Coronavirus Coverage

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