WASHINGTON—The White House Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, has ramped up efforts to expand the country’s testing capacities, which are critical for detecting and fighting the virus that causes COVID-19.
“We are addressing the testing issue in a variety of ways,” Pence said on March 3 during a press briefing at the White House in response to complaints about lack of testing capacity.
He said the test kits developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were being shipped.
“We should have 2,500 kits out before the end of this week,” he said, which will have the capability of testing 1.5 million people. In addition, a company called Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT) is ramping up manufacturing and will be able to ship an additional 1 million capacity by next week, he added.
A doctor on March 2 warned that hospitals across the United States are unprepared to detect and respond to the coronavirus. Dr. Matt McCarthy, a staff physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told CNBC that the lack of testing capacity hampered him.
“I’m here to tell you, right now, at one of the busiest hospitals in the country, I don’t have it at my fingertips,” he said. “I still have to make my case, plead to test people. This is not good. We know that there are 88 cases in the United States. There are going to be hundreds by the middle of the week. There’s going to be thousands by next week. And this is a testing issue.”
Speaking at the press briefing, Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said that the recent shipments would “significantly increase the capacity around the country for testing.”
Pence also announced that any American would be tested for coronavirus if deemed necessary.
“We will issue new guidance from the CDC that will make it clear that any American can be tested—no restrictions—subject to doctor’s orders,” Pence said, adding that the guidance would be effective immediately.
To address the testing issues, the task force held a meeting with the CEOs of some of the nation’s leading commercial laboratories on March 4.
Congress Reaches Funding Deal
Meanwhile, congressional negotiators on March 4 reached a bipartisan emergency funding deal to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. A congressional aide to House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) told The Epoch Times that the deal provides $8.3 billion in new funding to federal agencies to help states and the federal government fight the coronavirus.
The bill is expected to reach the president’s desk by the end of this week.
As of the time of this writing, the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus has risen to nine and confirmed cases reached 80, according to the CDC.
Speaking at the press conference, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said a coronavirus vaccine could be ready for testing on humans soon. Still, it would take at least a year to determine whether the vaccine is safe and effective, “even though we’re going at rocket speed.”
The task force also announced that the Office of Management and Budget would be issuing new guidance for employee travel. It will direct “all federal government agencies to review internal travel policies to adhere to State Department advisories with regard to international travel,” Pence said.
Pence also addressed the face mask shortage in the country.
He said that the country had reserves of 43 million masks, and there were plans to expand the production of masks.
“It’s not necessary for the American people to buy masks,” he said, stressing that masks are most needed by health care providers.
Personal protective equipment such as N95 respirators are in high demand in the United States, with the supply of the masks being strained due to panic-shopping. Health care officials have been asking people not to use masks if they’re healthy and not infected.
A recent poll found that 77 percent of Americans are confident in the federal government’s ability to tackle a potential coronavirus outbreak. The result was from a Feb. 3–16 Gallup poll, which began a few days after the Trump administration announced travel restrictions from China.
The result topped the confidence that Americans reported during the previous outbreaks between 2005 and 2017, including Zika, Ebola, the swine flu (H1N1), and the bird flu. Critics say the recent death tolls in the United States may have lowered the confidence.
President Donald Trump formed a Coronavirus Task Force to combat the spread of the disease with an all-of-government approach. He appointed Pence on Feb. 26 to oversee the task force and praised his experience in handling health crises during his time as Indiana governor in 2014. Pence announced that the task force would hold a daily press briefing to provide updates.