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Delays In Coronavirus Testing Create Confusion, Raise Questions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The effort to combat the coronavirus in this country was complicated by faulty test kits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed a replacement, but only a limited number of labs can use it. With the help of private companies, federal authorities are hoping to ramp up access to those new tests. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, infectious disease experts say doctors are still not testing many people who might be infected.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Florida discovered its first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, this week. One was in a man in his 60s hospitalized with pneumonia. Despite having symptoms associated with coronavirus, Florida's Surgeon General Scott Rivkees says the patient wasn't tested for five days.

SCOTT RIVKEES: There was a delay in testing. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control actually sent out new protocols for the kits they had sent.

ALLEN: Until then, the CDC's protocols only authorized testing for people with symptoms who had traveled to China or been in contact with someone who'd recently been there. Rivkees says now health care workers are trying to find out how this man may have contracted the disease and how many others may have been exposed. Even under the new guidelines, many people who may have the disease are not being tested.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I started feeling a little bit sick leaving Italy on Wednesday morning.

ALLEN: This woman interviewed by CBS4 in Miami wants to remain anonymous to protect her privacy.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I was having a rather severe sore throat and a headache and mild cough, and the cough progressed over the next couple of days.

ALLEN: At Jackson Memorial, one of Miami's leading hospitals, she tested positive for a different strain of the coronavirus. But because she was not considered high risk and didn't require hospitalization, her doctor said, under federal guidelines, she couldn't be tested for the current strain. Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease expert at Florida International University in Miami, reviewed the woman's case and agrees that she likely has COVID-19.

AILEEN MARTY: It was very clear from her travel history, from her symptoms, from everything about her presentation and all the negative results for every other respiratory pathogen that she was a COVID-19 patient. We were not allowed to get testing for her.

ALLEN: Similar stories are popping up across the country. In Phoenix, a sick woman who believed she'd been exposed has told her story on local TV. In Seattle, a health care worker with symptoms documented her unsuccessful attempts to get tested on a widely shared Twitter thread. It's also been confusing and frustrating for doctors and clinicians. On a call with reporters yesterday, Dr. Nancy Messonnier with the CDC defended the agency's response, saying despite the apparent restrictions, doctors are able to use their judgment to decide who should be tested.

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NANCY MESSONNIER: But what we really need to focus on now is where we are today. There is spread across many countries, across the world and spread in communities in the United States, and we need to be focused on what we're doing today to identify patients who are ill, make sure that they're getting appropriately treated and tested.

ALLEN: That, Marty says, is exactly why expanded testing is so important. Evidence collected about the coronavirus so far suggests that about 80% of those infected won't develop symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization. They likely won't be tested, Marty says, but they should be.

MARTY: Not only does it reassure them as to what they have, but very important for the public health aspect is that we can then do contact tracing on that other 80% who fall ill and have a much quicker response, a better containment of the outbreak.

ALLEN: At a hearing in the U.S. Senate yesterday, federal health officials said they expect to have enough kits out by the end of the week for a million people, but there's no indication that they plan to further expand the guidelines for who should be tested.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "23.01.2018") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.