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White House List Of Testing Labs Wasn't Helpful, States Say


Public health workers across the country are trying to improve the access people have to COVID tests. Widespread testing, as we heard, is critical to safely reopening states, and President Trump recently said his task force has provided them with something that was truly important, a list.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Then one week ago, we provided each governor with a list of names, addresses and phone numbers of the labs where they could find additional testing capacity in their states. Within 48 hours, the number of tests performed across the country began to absolutely skyrocket.

SIMON: What was actually on those lists, and did states find them useful? NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce decided to find out. Nell, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Fine, thanks. So just to be clear, the idea behind these lists was that there was laboratory testing capacity that - in the states that was just going unused.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's what President Trump said. You know, back in April, everyone was desperately clamoring for more tests, and the states were given these lists by the White House task force. And these lists were supposed to show state officials what was available locally in their own backyards in terms of laboratories that could do tests.

SIMON: Did the states find this helpful?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, one official that spoke out at the time was Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. He said that the labs on the list were all federally owned labs that he didn't have access to. Here's what he said on MSNBC.


LARRY HOGAN: Well, they aren't tests. They're just labs that don't have any tests. And they're all federally owned labs.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Like the National Institutes of Health, which is in Maryland. And I contacted the NIH, and they said they didn't have the capacity to do any testing beyond what they were already doing for their onsite Clinical Center and their own staff.

So as far as the other states, I recently sent out a survey on testing efforts to all 50 state health departments. And one of the things I specifically asked about was the effect of these lists. You know, did the list lead to increased testing in your state?

SIMON: And what were the answers?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Not all the states got back to me, and not all addressed these specific questions. But of those that did, only one, Alabama, said the labs on the list had been helpful to know about. Six states said the list hadn't been seen or reviewed, at least as far as the responding official knew. And nine states said the lists had been reviewed but had not produced increased testing. So that includes places like South Carolina, Maine, Idaho, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, just looking at the list here.

SIMON: Did they say why the lists weren't useful?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In some cases, they already knew about all the labs on the list. Or they said the labs had testing equipment machines, but this didn't mean they were actually capable of doing coronavirus tests for people. For example, maybe it was a veterinary or academic lab that didn't have the kind of regulatory approvals you'd need to run medical tests. Or the labs just didn't have the supplies or the testing chemicals that you'd need to detect the coronavirus.

SIMON: And now we've been hearing that supplies, for example, like swabs are a real limiting factor for testing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A number of states did tell me that, really, what's standing in the way of increasing testing is the availability of the testing supplies. That's what they really need help with, access to testing supplies and the supply chain management when there's this overwhelming demand.

SIMON: Did you ask the White House?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: I did. I said that some states had told me this list, you know, wasn't useful, and I asked if the task force was aware of any examples of the lists significantly helping. And a task force official told me that, quote, "the success of this effort is in the increased testing the nation has seen in recent weeks due to states tapping into unused capacity" but didn't give me any specific examples.

SIMON: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce, thanks so much.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.