“The sites will roll out progressively over the week,” Admiral Giroir said. “This is not make believe, it is not fantasy. We will start shipping gear and deploying officers Monday and Tuesday.”
Mr. Pence said that more than 10 states had already set up their own drive-through test sites. But some have had waiting times several hours long and had to turn people away.
Admiral Giroir said the first priority in testing would be given to health care workers, first responders and people who are particularly vulnerable, including those over 65 with symptoms and others with underlying conditions that weaken their immune systems. Regions with high numbers of cases will get first priority for the testing centers, he added.
Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, and Admiral Giroir, whom Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, last week put in charge of coordinating testing efforts across federal agencies, appealed to the public not to seek testing unless symptoms and a real need were present.
Dr. Birx warned that as testing increases — Admiral Giroir described a regimen that “can test many tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of individuals per week and maybe even more” — there will be a spike in the number of reported cases.
The shortage of tests and the long delay in starting to correct the problem have left doctors and patients frustrated and frightened, and experts say the lag in identifying cases helped hide the spread of the virus and slowed efforts to stop it.
Dr. Osterholm said that testing would play an important role in determining whether efforts to control the virus were working.
When schools are shut down, restaurants and bars are closed and Broadway has gone dark, how will authorities know when it is time to let things get back to normal? he asked.
“We need a trigger to turn things on, and a trigger to turn them off,” he said. “You need testing for that.”
In an email, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, “Testing is not a panacea.”
He warned that demands for widespread testing could even do harm. In areas where the virus is spreading, he said, people with mild or no symptoms “will take up the time, protective equipment, and lab materials of health facilities,” possibly becoming infected in the process.
Dr. Frieden added, “Testing is crucially important to find when the virus is spreading, control outbreaks in health facilities, care for people with pneumonia, and understand the virus better.”
But he emphasized that it’s important to understand the limits of testing.
“Whether the people with symptoms are positive or not, they must isolate themselves, especially from medically vulnerable people: the test could be falsely negative, or could become positive the next day. Furthermore, in a communitywide outbreak, there’s no way public health workers will be able to identify and track contacts of all people who test positive.”
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