Emails Reveal Breakdowns in U.S. Drive-Through Virus Testing

As coronavirus infections exploded in New Orleans, state and local officials repeatedly told the Trump administration that its new drive-through testing effort wasn’t going well, Reuters writes.

Those who were tested often waited more than a week for results, and local officials had no information on who had been notified by a federally contracted call center, according to emails between local and federal officials reviewed by Reuters.

As deaths mounted, local officials requested details on the notifications as they increasingly fielded calls by those left in limbo – including health workers. But Washington officials largely brushed off their concerns, according to the correspondence, which has not been previously reported.

Frustrated city officials started their own operation to notify people after the state began receiving test results on March 26, nearly a week after testing started. One big problem: The lab initially sent many results with no phone numbers to reach those tested.

The delays and confusion created new problems for local officials managing the crisis in one of America’s emerging hot spots. As of Tuesday, Louisiana had more than 21,500 confirmed cases, including more than 1,000 deaths.

Timely test results are crucial to containing the virus and enabling essential workers such as doctors and nurses to stay safely on the front lines. The problems in New Orleans underscore the challenges the Trump administration faces in ramping up testing nationwide in hopes of reopening the U.S. economy.

On March 25, city health director Jennifer Avegno sent one of the many requests for information to federal officials.

“We are receiving many calls today from citizens who went through the drive through testing in the earliest days and have not gotten a call,” she wrote. “Can you update us on how many results have been received, turnaround times, and how many individuals have been contacted?”

Kristina Harder, an official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who was working with the federal call center, did not address the information request and instead suggested telling people to be patient.

“The call center should be contacting those folks who were at your sites in the beginning days,” she wrote. “I hope this is helpful!”

A day later, Avegno forwarded a doctor’s plea to the Trump administration’s new testing czar, Brett Giroir, and other federal officials. “I’m just looking to get my results,” the surgical resident at Tulane University had written.

HHS never provided an accounting of who the call center had notified, city and state officials told Reuters.

In a statement, HHS called the drive-through sites “a profound success” with more than 77,000 people tested nationwide. HHS didn’t address specific questions about problems with the operation in Louisiana or elsewhere. The agency said delays in getting results and notifying patients were resolved and results were now being given within three to five days, Reuters adds.

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