Washington’s reliance on the federal government’s shipments of supplies to drastically increase coronavirus testing is running into a new challenge: test kit assembly.
As new federal shipments of nasal swabs and other supplies trickle into the state in piecemeal fashion, state officials are scrambling to gather missing items necessary to complete testing kits.
“The state will have to do some work to find all the necessary items and to get everything packaged together,” said Reed Schuler, a senior adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee. “That’s going to require significant labor, so that’s another possible bottleneck.”
If officials aren’t able to supplement the federally provided supplies to make test kits, some materials might end up being distributed in bulk to local health departments, Schuler said. A 25-member crew of National Guard soldiers and AmeriCorps volunteers now assembling the kits in a Tumwater warehouse also likely will need to be expanded in the coming weeks, state officials said.
Bulk shipments of nasal swabs and transport media — the chemicals used to preserve specimens during shipment to labs — are part of the Trump administration’s short-term commitment to providing testing supplies to Washington and other states. Washington is expected to receive 580,000 swabs this month and next month, as well as enough transport media for about three-quarters of the swabs, Schuler said.
So far, the state has received one shipment of about 37,000 swabs, but state officials expect a large shipment to arrive Tuesday with 145,700 more swabs and 100,000 units of transport media, Schuler said.
Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, which causes the illness COVID-19, exploded in late February, Washington has struggled to provide widespread diagnostic testing. Inslee, with an eye toward a phased reopening of businesses and social and recreational activities in Washington, had set a goal to ramp up testing and contact tracing in the weeks and months ahead.
The governor called for 20,000 to 30,000 tests per day and for more than doubling the number of trained contact investigation personnel to 1,500 workers to form a “rapid response team” for tracking down anyone who had contact with someone who tests positive.
Inslee has not given a firm deadline for his goals, but his office and health officials have said ramped-up testing needs to be in place in Washington for the coming flu season, which typically arrives in the fall. Expanded testing by then will be crucial for health care professionals to suss out whether patients are sick with COVID-19 or with the flu or other seasonal viruses, they said.
In recent weeks, Washington’s slog forward on the testing front has shown glimmers of progress. Washington averaged about 2,845 tests per day as of April 25, but that average had climbed to 3,555 as of Saturday. Overall, the state’s testing has scaled upward over the past month, with Washington for the first time breaking the 7,000-tests-per-day mark last week, with 7,044 tests reported on May 6.
But the increase in testing also has “resulted in detecting more cases over the past two weeks,” added Lisa Stromme, a state Department of Health (DOH) spokeswoman.
For the past few weeks, the daily positive test rate has ranged from about 4% to 7% percent, with about 250 to 350 new cases per day. A report from the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM) also showed the infection rate — which projects how many others an infected person, in turn, infects — likely increased slightly in Western Washington in mid-April.
The plateau in Washington’s epidemiological curve — which experts say has flattened since social distancing measures were implemented in late March — coincides with weather turning warmer. Large outdoor crowds at parks and elsewhere over Mother’s Day weekend prompted health officials to warn that people need to remain vigilant to avoid a spike in new infections.
President Donald Trump and officials in his administration repeatedly have boasted that the U.S. is performing more tests than any other country in the world, but Washington and other states have grappled with shortages of testing supplies, hampering widespread testing.
Randall Bolten, a longtime Silicon Valley chief financial officer and University of California, Berkeley lecturer, concluded in a research note based on his analysis of Worldometers coronavirus data through May 7, that per capita testing in the U.S. is “right in the middle of the pack” compared with nations worldwide. About half of the countries he analyzed had performed more tests per capita than the United States, including Germany, Italy, Singapore and Iceland, and half had performed fewer tests.
As of May 10, “about 33% of the world’s COVID-19 cases had occurred in the U.S., but the U.S. had only performed about 20% of the world’s tests,” Bolten, who is also a data scientist, said in an email Monday.
In recent weeks, Trump has laid responsibilities on governors to acquire their own testing supplies, with the federal government playing only a support role. Governors, including Inslee, have pushed back, saying more help is needed from the feds to adequately step up testing.
Adm. Brett Giroir, the U.S. assistant secretary for health, said in an emailed statement Monday that the administration is “confident our nation has a clear and sustainable pathway to meet … future testing needs” through an incremental approach with states, to be reassessed on a monthly basis.
The number of testing supplies pledged to date was “collaboratively set” with the state, Giroir’s statement added. It also encouraged Washington to seek supplies through a “robust” commercial market, but noted the administration is “prepared to work with the states moving forward.”
But the federal government hasn’t firmly committed to making additional testing supplies available beyond the current pledge of supplies through June, Schuler said.
“We’ve received what I would call some positive noises for the long term, but we would be on firmer ground if the federal government told us that we will receive this allotment past June,” Schuler said.
Meantime, Washington must acquire an assortment of additional supplies — including chemical reagents used during the testing process, parafilm for sealing test tubes and sterile specimen bags — to complete the test kits. Since last month, the state had ordered at least $784,000 in testing supplies from private vendors out of more than $410 million in COVID-related purchase orders, according to records obtained by The Seattle Times.
Once bulk materials are received, state health department officials send a portion of them to the DOH lab in Shoreline for quality control testing. If the materials pass muster, testing kits are assembled by the team in Tumwater, said Mark Henry, a DOH employee who oversees the operation. State epidemiologists then decide how many kits to distribute to local health departments statewide.
“Eventually, we’ll need to get more people, but we’re meeting the demand for now and have plenty of space to hold the bulk supplies,” Henry said. “The real strain is just getting all the materials we need to build the complete kits.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Reicher contributed to this report.