In the most recent obstacle Washington has run into with federal coronavirus testing supplies, hundreds of thousands of items are arriving unlabeled or poorly packaged, leading to major delays and costs, according to state Secretary of Health John Wiesman.
Wiesman described the problems in a letter sent Tuesday to Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department’s assistant secretary for health, who has been leading the federal government’s testing response.
In the letter, Wiesman first expressed gratitude that the federal support had bolstered Washington’s testing capacity, allowing the state to administer an average of 8,600 tests per day in the past week. (In March, an average of 2,603 tests were administered per day in Washington; more recently, that number was around 4,300.)
But Wiesman went on to describe an array of recurring issues with the supplies the feds have provided and to ask for Giroir’s “personal attention to addressing these issues.”
Among the worst-affected testing supplies: transport media, the chemicals used to preserve specimens during shipment to labs. Washington state has been receiving unlabeled molecular transport media, which could produce cyanide gas if used with incompatible testing platforms, Wiesman wrote.
Other federal supplies Wiesman said “have failed our quality-control checks or presented other major barriers to usage” include: vials without clear expiration dates or identification labels; about 250,000 bulk-packaged polyester spun swabs, which require resterilizing and repackaging; and “a wide variety of other poorly packaged and unlabeled goods.”
Wiesman also mentioned shipping delays without temperature regulation, which require “significant staff time to sort and do unnecessary quality control.”
“Our team at the Washington Department of Health (DOH) has tried to resolve these at the staff level,” Wiesman wrote to Giroir, “but we now request your personal attention to addressing these issues.”
The federal agency didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to The Seattle Times’ request for comment.
Wiesman’s letter comes after multiple other issues Washington state has faced with shipments of testing supplies from the Trump administration.
In late April, the administration pledged to supply the state weekly shipments totaling 580,000 medical-testing-grade nasal swabs in May and June.
By mid-May, Washington had received about 60,000 swabs — roughly 10% of the amount Giroir had pledged to deliver by month’s end. HHS made the same promise for June, and also agreed to send enough transport media to cover about three-quarters of the promised swabs.
In May, new federal shipments of testing kits also arrived unfinished, leaving state officials scrambling to gather missing items necessary to complete the kits. And later that month, state health officials expecting a shipment of individually packaged, sterilized polyester nasal swabs were puzzled to receive a bulk order of Q-tips-style swabs packaged loose in boxes labeled “Comforts for Baby Cotton Swabs.” The White House coronavirus task force said the packaging was mislabeled.
Giroir, who was appointed to oversee coronavirus testing in March, announced at the beginning of June he would step down sometime during that month to return to his regular HHS role, NPR reported. An agency spokesperson told NPR that Giroir would remain engaged in COVID-19 testing and “related efforts,” though many of the “day-to-day management and operations of testing” were being transferred to HHS operating divisions.
“These reoccurring problems are creating barriers to our effectively carrying out Washington’s testing strategy,” Wiesman’s Tuesday letter said. “In addition to imposing a significant burden on limited Department of Health and other state response staff time and resources, the combination of supply chain challenges — particularly those affecting the transport media — threatens to limit our overall testing capacity at a critical time in the pandemic response.”
Wiesman ended the letter by requesting a discussion with Giroir about how to address the issues and “support our shared goal of expanding testing and slowing the spread of the virus in our communities.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Lewis Kamb contributed to this story.