The death toll from the infection has risen to 11 in the United States as of Wednesday afternoon, including 10 in Washington state and one in California. There are 158 novel coronavirus cases in the U.S., according to local media.
The need for testing became urgent as the first COVID-19 patient with no travel history and no exposure to confirmed cases was identified last week.
Most labs follow a stringent criteria that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) set up to determine who could be tested. Before the first case of unknown origin was reported, only those who had traveled to China in the past 14 days of developing symptoms and those who had contact with coronavirus patients were eligible for testing.
The high bar set for COVID-19 testing meant that those with mild symptoms were denied access.
A delay in testing means the virus may now be circulating undetected in communities across the country, which significantly increases the likelihood of cross-infection.
其实早在一月，德国的研究团队已经研发短时间内能检测新冠病毒的方法，但是美国疾控中心 (CDC) 表示我们不用…
In the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, only U.S. state public labs were allowed to conduct COVID-19 testing. Local hospitals, if they wanted to test for the virus, needed to validate their test with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a lengthy onerous process that is likely to take a few days.
Faulty test kits also delayed public health officials' response. The 200 test kits sent by the CDC in early February to public health labs were later announced to be flawed. All samples were required to be sent to the central CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, which significantly delayed the diagnosis and treatment process.
Data from the CDC shows that as of March 1, one in one million were tested for COVID-19 in the U.S. In comparison, in South Korea, it was 2,138 per million, and in Italy, 386 per million.
At a press conference on Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the CDC is going to lift all restrictions on COVID-19 testing. Any American can be tested for COVID-19 subject to doctors' orders, according to Pence.
Following the nation-wide call for more testing, and as the fear of community transmission increases, the CDC began shipping test kits to private labs across the country. Hundreds of academic hospital labs are authorized to offer coronavirus testing, while commercial companies are also encouraged to develop their own testing kits.
2,500 test kits with a capacity of up to 500 tests each will be supplied to laboratories by the end of Friday, able to perform up to one million coronavirus tests, according to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn.
But as the availability of test kits increase, costs associated with the tests also become a problem. Those with medical insurance can have their testing cost covered just as other type of care. For tests conducted in public labs, no cost will be incurred. But as the CDC announced that it would work with commercial firms to expand testing, private companies may issue separate bills for the test.
But even if testing is free, other associated costs may not be. The U.S. health care system has already come under fire in recent days for charging hefty bills for government-mandated quarantines. According to the New York Times report, among a dozen Americans flown back from Wuhan and quarantined in the U.S., one was charged for over 3,000 U.S. dollars for his hospital visit.
For the 27.5 million uninsured in the U.S., they may have no choice but to foot an exorbitantly high medical bill, including costs of visiting the doctors' office and emergency room cost. The concern is that the uninsured would skip treatment for fear of its overwhelming cost and thus miss the chance for early treatment.
It is increasingly the case that the burdens of COVID-19 are falling disproportionately on those who are vulnerable because of their economic, social and health status. To remove the financial barrier for people to go and get screened at the hospital would be key to containing the spread of the virus.