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Trump's Plan For Drive-Up COVID-19 Tests At Stores Yields Few Results


We follow up now on a promise made by the president. In March, the president announced a big advance in coronavirus testing. He said big retailers would set up testing sites. They were supposed to include CVS, Target, Walgreens and Walmart. At a Rose Garden event in April, the president said it was all going great.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What Walmart and the others have done has been nothing short of amazing.

INSKEEP: Has it really been? Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team found very few testing sites have ever opened. Good morning.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How have you gone about following up on this promise by the president?

PFEIFFER: So my colleagues and I have called all the stores to find out how many they have and then how many of those stores have testing sites. We first vetted this pledge about a month after President Trump made it. At that point, we found there were barely any sites. As of mid-April, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart together had only eight testing sites in the whole country. Target had none.

INSKEEP: Oh, so zero. So not a good number there. But that was mid-April. How about now?

PFEIFFER: The situation has improved but not substantially. We did another tally last week, and the numbers are still pretty measly. Target now has a single testing site out of nearly 1,900 U.S. stores. Walgreens, out of more than 9,000 stores, has 28 testing sites. That means 0.3% of Walgreens locations offer testing. Kroger is about 2%. Rite Aid and Walmart, each about 3%. CVS gets credit for the largest number - 10% of its locations have testing sites.

INSKEEP: Still, disappointing numbers across the board, and maybe even more so because you hear these company names and you can hear the potential. I would think almost everybody in America lives close to one of these companies. It could be amazing.

PFEIFFER: Yes. Collectively, these six companies have about 32,000 locations nationwide. But right now only about 1,300 of those stores have COVID-19 testing sites. That's just 4% on average. And keep in mind, CVS accounts for 1,000 of those 1,300.

INSKEEP: OK. What are the reasons that the companies give for not having opened more sites?

PFEIFFER: Well, the White House seems to have overpromised what the private sector was able or willing to do, and then shortages of supplies like swabs may have made the companies reluctant to get involved. Also, many stores don't have room for drive-through testing. Here's Jennifer Nuzzo. She's a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist who tracks COVID-19 testing.

JENNIFER NUZZO: That vision of, you know, basically every CVS on the corner, every Walmart or Target being able to do the testing may not have been realistic from the beginning because it is probably likely that only some of the facilities are actually suitable for that kind of testing.

INSKEEP: So this was not realistic to begin with and hasn't materialized.

PFEIFFER: It doesn't seem to have. Now, there are some hospitals and health centers that offer drive-through testing through local initiatives, but we looked at the big retail chains mentioned by the president. And by the way, Steve, in the case of Rite Aid, all its testing sites are at locations like vacant parking lots, not the actual stores.

INSKEEP: Since we are vetting a promise by the president, how specific was the president anyway? Did he say how many drive-through testing sites there would be?

PFEIFFER: No. He made a promise that sounded grand, but he was very vague, and so that left the companies to figure out the number. I asked another epidemiologist, Dr. William Hanage of Harvard's School of Public Health, who should be faulted for how few drive-through sites have opened at the big chains.

WILLIAM HANAGE: Where the blame should lie is probably not with the retailers. At every single level, there has been a failure to meet the challenge and to actually give people the testing they need.

INSKEEP: And probably not with the retailers, meaning pointing at the government. But there is a question now, Sacha Pfeiffer - how much testing should we be doing as we head into this new phase of the pandemic?

PFEIFFER: There has never really been a consensus on that, so it's hard to say whether having, on average, 4% of these major retail stores offering testing - which is now the case - whether that's satisfactory. But certainly, the White House gave the impression that drive-through testing was going to be widespread, and that's not the case. It is statistically unlikely that a Kroger, Rite Aid, Target, Walgreens or Walmart near you currently offers testing. A CVS? Maybe.

INSKEEP: Sacha, thanks.

PFEIFFER: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.