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Supply Shortages Still Holding Back COVID-19 Test Capacity

People in medical masks outside
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam attended a walk-up COVID-19 testing site in Richmond. (Photo: Roberto Roldan/VPM News)

CARPER: Virginia has the lowest rate of COVID-19 testing per capita nationwide, but Governor Ralph Northam has announced efforts to ramp up capacity. The ultimate goal is to test 10,000 people a day, but we’re not there yet.

I’m joined with reporter Megan Pauly to unpack these numbers. Hi, Megan.

PAULY: Hi, Craig.

CARPER: So Megan, can you first give us a sense of the state’s testing efforts and capabilities so far?

PAULY: Sure. So, Governor Northam has emphasized testing really is key to opening things back up. He said Monday that the state doubled its testing capacity over last week’s numbers to about 4,000. I requested a breakdown of how they got to that figure but officials did not answer my specific questions.

At the end of last week, the only state-run lab -- which is in Richmond -- said they were processing between 400 and 500 tests a day. So a lot of the work has been left up to area health systems and other commercial labs.

CARPER: Which health systems have been participating in the testing?

PAULY: According to the state hospital association, only a handful.

In Central Virginia, UVA has been doing a lot, and all in-house. At the start of last week, they were exceeding the state lab’s capacity, doing about 500 daily a day.

And VCU is close to that, with about 400 tests a day. That’s just a fraction of their total capacity, though. David Lanning, VCU’s interim chief medical officer, told me that if testing supplies were unlimited, they’d be able to produce about 4,000 tests a day. But right now, he says they’ve been rationing supplies.  

LANNING: So we have to be sort of judicious in how we utilize the testing kits as well as the reagents for the tests.

PAULY: I also spoke with Dr. Iyad Sabbagh, chief physician executive for Valley Health System in Winchester, Virginia. They’ve been testing between 50 and 100 people every day.

SABBAGH: We recognized early on that we needed to know to ramp up our testing. So we started community testing sites in addition to the hospital testing site.

PAULY: Sabbagh says they have two drive-through testing sites by appointment only. But, they’ve only been able to process 4-5 tests each day on-site because of the supply shortage. The rest they’re sending to private labs like Lab Corps and Quest.

CARPER: So what specifically is in short supply?

PAULY: So there’s been a shortage of the swabs to collect samples, and test tubes used to transport these samples in. Northam said Monday the state lab just received a shipment of 14,000 swabs from FEMA. And UVA has been sourcing from 11 different companies to get more swabs.

But there’s also been a shortage of reagents. These are substances that are added to the samples to help detect the virus. And they’re specific to the machines that labs use. So that’s also part of the holdup.

CARPER: And there are a couple of big differences in the types of testing being done right? 

PAULY: Right, so there’s the nasal or mouth swab test that we just talked about. They’re supposed to be able to detect very early on if the virus is present. But, these tests haven’t always been accurate, with some false positives. So labs and hospitals are starting to do blood testing, known as antibody testing.

CAFFREY: Antibody testing answers the question: have you been exposed in the past, or had a COVID-19 infection.

PAULY: That’s Dr. Rebecca Caffrey with Chesterfield County-based Granger Genetics, who has been doing some antibody testing in the Richmond area.

Researchers like Caffrey hope these tests will eventually be able to help determine who is an asymptomatic carrier, as well as who might be immune to COVID-19. However, not all antibody tests are created equal: and some have been drawing national criticism for inaccuracy.

Meanwhile, Virginia officials are still trying to get a better sense of who is doing these tests, and the role of private labs

CARPER: Thanks for the update, Megan. We’ll keep watching these numbers.

PAULY: Thanks Craig.

CARPER: You’re listening to VPM News.