White House Turns to Corporate America to Fix Testing Shortfall
U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/Bloomberg)

White House Turns to Corporate America to Fix Testing Shortfall

(Bloomberg) --

The Trump administration is leaning heavily on the nation’s drug retailers and lab-testing companies to try to solve a problem that has vexed it since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic: Getting mass testing up and running smoothly.

Expanding on an earlier effort to ramp up testing in store parking lots, the White House on Monday revealed plans to partner with Walmart Inc., CVS Health Corp., Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and other chain retailers and diagnostics companies to put testing facilities in place nationwide. If successful, it could amount to the biggest expansion yet of testing capacity in the U.S. But the new push also comes months into an outbreak that has sickened nearly a million Americans and shut in much of the broader economy.

The administration hopes to have the capacity for all 50 states to test at least 2% of residents, with an emphasis on screening in elderly and minority communities that have seen the highest mortality rates.

“Having pharmacies get involved in testing is a very big deal,” President Donald Trump said at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden.

CVS said it will open testing sites at 1,000 of its stores, while Walgreens, CVS’s largest rival, said it planned to have testing available at stores in 49 states and Puerto Rico, giving it the ability to screen some 50,000 people a week. Other chains are also planning to scale up capacity by adding temporary drive-through sites to store parking lots, among other steps.

Walmart is currently operating 20 test sites and anticipates having more than 100 running by the end of May, allowing it to perform more than 20,000 tests a week, Dan Bartlett, Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, wrote in a blog post Monday.

White House Turns to Corporate America to Fix Testing Shortfall

The White House wants to shift more responsibility for testing to the states and the private sector. Trump has been frustrated by questions about the U.S. government’s failure to more rapidly expand testing for the coronavirus and has said states should shoulder more of the burden.

The administration on Monday unveiled a blueprint that calls for the federal government to coordinate with governors to support their testing efforts. The plan calls for using diagnostic tests to identify community spread and contain potential outbreaks.

Establishing adequate testing bandwidth in the U.S. remains one of the most significant obstacles to containing the pandemic and returning Americans to work. Screening for current infections and for people who have had the disease but recovered is widely seen as crucial to restarting the economy. Alongside the lack of capacity, questions about the accuracy of tests, especially those for antibodies in previously infected people, remain.

The stepped-up testing program comes a month after the administration joined with many of the same retailers in an initial attempt to expand capacity. In March, the administration said it would would partner with CVS, Target Corp., Walmart and Walgreens on testing sites. Rite Aid Corp. later joined the group.

That effort was slow to gain traction. In the first month, only a handful of locations opened, and about 70 are now up and running. But the bulk of diagnostic testing is still being done at hospitals or by other health-care providers. As a result, testing has been focused mostly on very sick people, leading to what public-health experts believe is a serious undercount of coronavirus cases.

Tented Testing

The rush to erect makeshift testing muscle in suburban parking lots has been challenging for stores as well. Many patients remain confused about what types of tests can be obtained at the sites. It’s also not clear whether the presence of the sites could chase away healthy consumers at a time when drugstores are faced with a darkening economic picture.

At a Rite Aid drive-through site in Toms River, New Jersey, last week, orange cones separated shoppers from people waiting to be tested for coronavirus. The operation took up only a fraction of the store’s parking lot, in contrast to larger drive-through test locations like one at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, almost 40 miles north, where lines of cones are visible from the highway.

To get tested, drivers must navigate their cars through a series of small tents. At the first, a Rite Aid worker calls out the person’s date of birth to a co-worker, who fetches a label. The driver then proceeds to the next tent, where a bin with a test tube and nasal swab awaits at the end of a plastic table.

A pharmacist then pushes the table to the car’s door and tells the person taking the test to unwrap the swab, stick it halfway up their nostril, twist twice and hold for 15 seconds. The pharmacist counts to 15 out loud, assuring the person inside the car that it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. The process is repeated for each nostril.

“Good job,” the pharmacist shouted to one patient, who then stuck the swab into the tube, sealed it and placed it in the bin before thanking the pharmacist and driving away.

Pharmacies have tried different approaches to parking-lot testing and have said they are getting more proficient, but the experience can be puzzling for patients. At the Toms River Rite Aid, a man parked in front of the store and said he couldn’t find the registration website on any site affiliated with Rite Aid. He walked into the store to ask for help. Another man walked out of the store complaining about the need to register online, saying he and many others in the community don’t own computers.

Rite Aid Chief Executive Officer Heyward Donigan said on Monday the company is increasing its testing but didn’t outline any details.

CVS has contributed logistical expertise to opening up large facilities in the parking lots of closed businesses, such as the Twin River Casino in Rhode Island. The company chose that route after experimenting at one of its own stores in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Executives say that testing facilities are likely to remain in place in some capacity until a vaccine for the coronavirus is available.

“You have to think about these being present until a vaccine is prepared and we have universal vaccination of the population,” CVS Chief Medical Officer Troyen Brennan said in an interview earlier this month.

Experts estimate the U.S. will have to run at least 500,000 tests daily to start to get people back to work. That’s about 200,000 a day over the peak conducted within the past week, according to the Covid Tracking Project, a group following test counts.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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