Merkley, Wyden push for more info, transparency on virus testing

WASHINGTON (KTVZ) — Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, D-Ore, along with 45 of their senate colleagues, are calling on Vice President Mike Pence and the Coronavirus Task Force, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to conduct a national inventory of the coronavirus (COVID-19) diagnostic testing supply, publicly release data on testing results, and provide a detailed plan and timeline for addressing future shortages and gaps in the testing supply chain.

“Over three weeks after President Trump declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency, we continue to hear from our states and Tribal Nations about the lack of supplies and testing kits to diagnose our constituents for the coronavirus,” the senators wrote. “State departments of health, hospitals, health care providers, and first responders lack the tests and equipment—including personal protective equipment (PPE), testing swabs, and reagents—needed to conduct adequate public health surveillance to contain and stop the spread of coronavirus.

The senators continued, “We urge you to promptly develop a national, real-time, public-facing inventory of COVID-19 diagnostic tests and results. This resource will provide the transparency that our states and Tribal Nations need to anticipate the national testing supply chain and the information that the federal government needs to anticipate and proactively address any testing shortages.”

Increasing testing capacity is critical to allow hospitals to preserve supplies of PPE and prevent unnecessary quarantines of front-line workers and first responders. In addition, experts have argued that widespread testing will be needed to track and contain COVID-19 cases, allowing communities to responsibly lift social distancing restrictions.

The full text of the senators’ letter is available here

She senators also raised serious concerns with the Trump administration about its reliance on private companies to distribute desperately needed medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic, which has created a system that lacks transparency, is inefficient, and could put lives at risk.

Health professionals across America and in every corner of Oregon are reporting shortages of critical supplies like masks, N95 respirators, gowns, and gloves—supplies they rely on to do their jobs effectively and safely.

“While we agree that the existing supply chains and unique capabilities of the commercial market should be used to the greatest extent practicable, the process the task force has decided to use is, at best, opaque and inefficient,” the senators wrote in their letter to Vice President Mike Pence. “We are concerned that the federal government is using taxpayer dollars to bring supplies to the United States, just to have six private distributors step in and sell those very supplies to desperate states and health care systems for a profit.

“In the private market, states, federal agencies, hospitals, and other entities must all compete for the same supplies, where resources are allocated according to existing commercial relationships or the highest bidder instead of greatest need,” the senators continued.

Without sufficient oversight, the senators explain in their letter, the administration’s strategy for distributing medical supplies is vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse. Currently, only half of the supplies procured by the federal government are distributed to areas that are considered “hotspots” by medical experts. The other half are left to commercial distributors to deliver wherever they choose.

Earlier this month, the Department of Defense transferred more than 5 million desperately needed N95 respirators to FEMA, which then turned them to private companies for distribution—rather than working with state emergency management offices to coordinate deliveries to communities with the greatest need. This practice raises serious concerns that private business’ commercial interests could lead to allocation of critical supplies according to the highest bidder, rather than on the basis of need.

Senators Merkley and Wyden were joined on the letter by the entire Senate Democratic Caucus, led by Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Tim Kaine (D-VA).

The full text of senators’ letter is available here