Washington’s governor appeals to VP Mike Pence for more COVID-19 testing supplies

Inslee and Pence
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee meets Vice President’s handshake with an “elbow bump” during a March news conference at Camp Murray, Wash. (C-Span Video)

In a strongly worded letter, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told Vice President Mike Pence today that the state has “nowhere near” the coronavirus testing capability needed to begin initiating pandemic recovery plans.

Inslee requested federal assistance to boost that capability through a robust national testing system.

The governor said state officials have been trying to procure the supplies for 2.5 million sample collection kits — including swabs, viral transport media and reagents. “We are nowhere near that today,” he wrote.

Charissa Fotinos, deputy chief medical officer at the Washington State Health Care Authority, told journalists during a follow-up teleconference that “we should have, by early next week, 30,000 kits that can be deployed across the state.”

Read the letter: Gov. Jay Inslee asks VP Mike Pence for federal assistance on coronavirus testing

With the supplies at hand, Fotinos said the state’s labs have been able to run up to 5,000 tests per day. But Kathy Lofy, state health officer and chief science officer at the Washington State Department of Health, said that number should be two to three times higher. “At least that’s where I’d like to be,” Lofy said.

During a White House briefing on Monday, Pence said every state had enough testing capability to move into the first phase of a plan for lifting restrictions on social and economic activity, and he said state governors were provided with lists of in-state laboratories that could do the testing.

But without enough supplies, the labs can’t address the need, Inslee said.

“Just as a driver cannot travel their full distance on a quarter-tank of gas, we cannot unlock the full capacity of our labs without additional testing supplies and infrastructure from the federal government,” he wrote.

Inslee laid out a nine-point plan to fill the gap, including:

  • Emergency funding to support a nationwide testing system, support small laboratories and create at-home testing programs.
  • Measures to ensure adequate supplies of swabs and other materials, through the use of the Defense Production Act where necessary.
  • A system to ensure that the supply chain of high-throughput testing platforms and reagents is running at full capacity.
  • Standardization of lab analysis processes, including a standard price list for tests and a universal requisition form.
  • Systems to support secure closed-loop information exchange between patients, their providers, labs and public health agencies.
  • A backstop capacity to ensure fair access to testing for vulnerable communities that experience barriers to testing.
  • Validation, authorization and guidance for the expansion of safe and accurate self-swab home testing and other rapid-result tests.
  • Consideration of additional surveillance testing nationally to probe for regional hotspots.
  • Validation and assessment of serological tests, which determine who has developed antibodies to the virus.

“I want to thank you for the opportunity to discuss these and other matters, but I thought it important to communicate the dire need we are facing in the state of Washington,” Inslee told Pence in the letter.

During today’s teleconference, Lofy said the coronavirus outbreak peaked statewide toward the end of March, based on day-by-day case statistics. However, she cautioned that some areas of the state aren’t yet seeing a clear decline.

Lofy said an argument could be made that the state has experienced a 14-day decline in new daily cases, which the White House considers a “gating” requirement for starting to loosen shelter-at-home orders. But that loosening is predicated on having adequate resources for widespread virus testing, contact tracing and isolation of people infected with the virus.

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“If people start coming in close contact with each other, it’s going to start spreading again, and spreading again rapidly,” Lofy said. “We are seeing lots of outbreaks right now. We initially talked a lot about the outbreaks we were seeing in long-term care facilities. Now we are learning about more outbreaks, actually, in business settings among essential workers that are working.”

On the contact tracing front, Lofy said about 600 trained people could be enlisted at the state’s public health agencies and districts to interview patients and track down the people they might have infected in turn. Another 800 volunteers should be ready to join the effort soon. “We do hope to scale up even further than that number,” she said.

Inslee’s chief of staff, David Postman, was asked about the cost of training and employing all those contact tracers, potentially for a year or more.

“We really can’t let that be a concern,” Postman replied. “We will find the money. And if we don’t have it in the state, we will go to the feds and ask for more help there. It is absolutely essential to get out of this, and I think it’s recognized by the federal government as well, so I don’t think there’ll be a fight over that. … Our orders from the Gov were, ‘Go big, be aggressive, and find people where you can get ’em.’ “

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