U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is demanding a government watchdog investigate delays and mismanagement by the Trump administration in rolling out testing for the novel coronavirus.
In a letter Thursday to Christi Grimm, principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Murray requested an immediate investigation into the agency’s effort to develop, deploy and analyze diagnostic tests for COVID-19.
“It is clear HHS’s grave errors in managing every aspect of the testing process — from development to deployment to analysis to communication — have undermined the country’s ability to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Murray wrote.
Murray, who has been pushing Vice President Mike Pence and other officials for weeks over delays in testing, cited media reports that public-health experts at the University of Washington had sought approval to start testing samples for COVID-19 — but were stymied by government officials.
In a March 5 letter to Pence, for example, Murray asked for detailed information on where the government stands on test kits, including how many would be deployed, how many people could be tested — and why the government did not use a test that had been approved by the World Health Organization.
That letter gave Pence a deadline of Thursday to provide answers, but a Murray spokesman said her office did not receive any.
An HHS spokesperson did not immediately response for a request for comment.
A lack of widespread testing capacity has made it difficult to track how widespread the COVID-19 outbreak has grown in Washington state, which has been at the epicenter of the virus outbreak in the United States. As of Thursday afternoon, there were 1,376 confirmed cases of infection in the state, including 74 deaths.
Testing capacity is slowly ramping up, health officials say.
Douglas Wagoner, a Washington Department of Health spokesman, said at the start of the outbreak the state had to send all samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Testing here began on Feb. 28 at the Public Health Lab in Shoreline.
“As testing demands increased, we bought more equipment, which was brought online March 8. We also quadrupled the lab staff who do this work. As of March 14, we can test 200 samples per day with a 48-hour turnaround time, and have no backlog,” Wagoner said in an email.
The agency has ordered a new instrument that would help it reach a goal of 400 tests a day, since the instrument has yet to arrive, “we aren’t there yet,” he said.
While lab tests are becoming more available, Wagoner said there are limitations on the health care system’s ability to rapidly obtain samples from people. And a shortage of equipment, including personal protective gear, swabs and sample collection tubes. “These items are supplied by various manufacturers and are in increasingly short supply worldwide,” he said.