Please Note

The Washington Post is providing this important information about the coronavirus for free. For more free coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, sign up for our daily Coronavirus Updates newsletter where all stories are free to read.

President Trump announced Friday that the government is partnering with private companies to set up drive-through coronavirus testing sites after a week of unrelenting criticism from lawmakers and frustrated Americans unable to find out if they are infected.

At a Rose Garden news conference, the president said the push to let people get tested from their own cars would involve a new Google website to advise consumers about whether they should get tested and where, and big-box companies and drugstores that would host drive-through testing sites in their store parking lots. State and federal health workers would staff the sites and perform the testing, officials said.

But several key participants said the administration was overstating the plans, including its scope, timetable and other aspects.

“This surprised all of us,” said one state health official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about how state health departments had gotten no advance notice. “This is bizarre,” the official said, pointing out that many of the 6,000 Public Health Service officers are deployed elsewhere and could not readily be shifted.

An hour after the news conference, a Google communications account tweeted a comment from Verily, the life sciences division of Google parent company Alphabet, that suggested the plan to build a broadly available website is nowhere close
“Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time.”

Chief executives of Target, Walgreens, Walmart and CVS pledged during the news conference to make space available in their store parking lots. But asked about the specific plans afterward, representatives of CVS, Target, Walmart and Walgreens said they had few details on how the tests would be administered or where or when they would begin.

“We don’t expect a large number of CVS locations to offer testing, given the other retail companies involved,” said a company spokesman, Joe Goode, who said sites would be chosen “in close coordination” with administration officials and other retailers.

Trump and senior administration officials said that consumers seeking the tests would be able to drive up to a site to get swabbed, then have the sample sent to diagnostic labs, which would run the tests and report back results in 24 hours.

They announced that and other testing initiatives Friday — a day after the administration took a drubbing on Capitol Hill. At one hearing, Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged the U.S. testing system is “not really geared to what we need right now … That is a failing. Let’s admit it.”

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have repeatedly pressed administration health officials on why the U.S. has not set up a model similar to that in South Korea — a country with a huge covid-19 outbreak — in which drive-through testing sites are widely available and do not require a doctor’s prescription and results are available rapidly. At one hearing on Thursday, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called on officials to “get to the bottom of why those problems are there.”

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said the concern now is less about the supply of tests than whether Americans can find easy and convenient places to get tested. Another concern is setting up testing sites away from health care facilities so that they don’t expose providers and others to the virus.

The virus is highly contagious and experts have urged the government and hospitals to figure out how to set up testing methods that will keep potentially sick people out of hospital ERs and doctors offices.

“There is no reason” states cannot “set up a drive-through … a clinic in a parking lot” for patients to be swabbed and specimens shipped off to labs to determine the results.

The administration’s push to boost drive-through testing comes as several places around the country have begun ramping up such services. Mayo Clinic opened such a facility this week, according to Jack O’Horo, a Mayo infections disease specialist. “This helps to protect other patients and staff from potentially coming into contact with the covid-19 virus,” he said.

New Rochelle, a New York suburb that has been designated a coronavirus containment zone after an outbreak there, on Friday became the first East Coast site of drive-though testing. Residents can make appointments by phone and then be tested from their cars in a six-lane site set up by the state’s health department. Swabs are sent to BioReference Laboratory, which will contact people with their results.

Colorado’s health department also has launched a drive-through site in Denver, requiring patients to bring a doctor’s note saying they need a test. Such sites also are available in Oahu, Hawaii and Hartford, Conn.

In other measures announced earlier on Friday, the Food and Drug Administration has created a 24-hour emergency hotline for laboratories having difficulty getting materials or finding other impediments to running tests, according to announcements early on Friday.

Officials also said they were giving nearly $1.3 million in federal money to two companies trying to develop rapid covid-19 tests that could determine whether a person is infected within an hour.

In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services assigned Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health, to coordinate all covid-19 testing efforts among federal public health agencies, including the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local health departments and public and private clinical laboratories.

The senior administration official said that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar “has been frustrated by the timeliness and accuracy of information regarding testing from the CDC.”

After more than a month in which tests themselves were show to become available, the official said that 4.8 million have now been distributed.

The FDA also is giving New York state the ability to authorize certain public and private labs to test for the virus under the aegis of the state health department, without first getting federal approval.

Earlier this week, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced he was moving ahead to contract with 28 private labs in New York. “We’re not in a position where we can rely on the CDC or the FDA to manage this testing protocol,” the governor said.

Cuomo said that he told the private labs they should “get up, get running and start moving forward with testing.” The state’s health department has a preexisting relationship with these labs, which Cuomo says has the experience with virology to get the testing done.

In addition, the FDA authorized a covid-19 test developed by the manufacturer Roche, making it the third diagnostic test approved for use in the outbreak.

Another senior administration official said they were starting to collect data from private laboratories on the number of tests they performed daily. The administration has been repeatedly criticized for knowing the volume of tests performed by the CDC but not a nationwide total from all the state and local and hospital labs involved in coronavirus testing.

Lena H. Sun annd Abha Bhattarai contributed to this story.

laurie.mcgingley@washpost.com

yasmeen.abutaleb@washpost.com