CDC director warns: Public health labs are underequipped and understaffed
03/13/2020 / By Franz Walker / Comments
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CDC director warns: Public health labs are underequipped and understaffed

As the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak looms over the country, officials now warn that the U.S. may not be ready for it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that both state and local health labs do not have enough equipment or staff to handle an outbreak.

“The truth is we’ve not invested, we’ve under-invested in the public health labs,” stated CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield at a House Appropriations hearing for the 2021 CDC budget. “There’s not enough equipment, there’s not enough people, there’s not enough internal capacity, there’s no surge capacity.”

Lawmakers grill CDC on budget

The House hearing initially sought to address the concerns about the CDC’s 2021 budget. However, lawmakers’ questions for Director Redfield focused more on the coronavirus outbreak, particularly on the slow rollout of testing kits across the country.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., questioned Redfield’s claims. The congresswoman, who represents the state’s third congressional district, noted that while her congressional colleagues were able to quickly obtain tests and results, some of her constituents were still waiting.

“I find it interesting that when my colleagues were able to get tested almost immediately and quickly receive their results while folks in my district and across Washington state are unable to get their testing results back,” stated Beutler.

25 people have already died in Washington state, according to data from the CDC. Of those, at least 19 can be linked to the Life Care nursing home in Kirkland, based on local official tallies.

On Sunday, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar mentioned that the U.S. had 75,000 test kits during an interview in ABC’s This Week. The HHS Secretary then claimed that the supply would expand radically over the following weeks.

Lack of test kits made worse by quality control issues

In addition to the lack of testing kits, the CDC’s testing efforts were initially marred by quality control issues that delayed the testing for many Americans. The CDC confirmed Sunday that it was investigating a manufacturing defect in some of the initial coronavirus testing kits.

The issues have prompted some states to ask the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to use their own, locally developed test kits. The FDA has since allowed laboratories to immediately use test kits they have developed and validated, in an effort to achieve a more rapid testing capacity for the disease.

Since then, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn stated that the agency is working hand in hand with the CDC to resolve the issues with the test components.

“FDA has confidence in the design and current manufacturing of the test that already have and are continuing to be distributed,” stated Hahn. “These tests have passed extensive quality control procedures.”

CDC’s budget slashed in recent years

In recent years, the CDC has had to work under a shrinking budget. From 2010 to 2019, the agency’s budget fell by 10 percent. The current administration has previously justified the cuts by stating that the government can simply hire more doctors should the need ever arise.

“I’m a businessperson. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” stated President Donald Trump in a press conference last month. “When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

To help get more test kits out in the market, the CDC is now partnering with private companies. Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT) has since been given a CDC contract to manufacture test kits. IDT is also partnering with commercial labs such as LabCorp and Quest for testing. LabCorp had their test available by Thursday while Quest had theirs available Monday.

While government sorts out the issues with testing, the number of infected continues to grow. The CDC reports a total of 647 cases so far and 25 deaths. However, the agency’s count only covers those tested by public health labs, results from private labs have not yet been factored in.

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