Why the US early warning system for the spread of coronavirus has stumbled: plans

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A pathologist holds a bottle of a COVID-19 test kit. In the United States, various bottlenecks that limited coronavirus testing were problematic in February and persist today.

Michael Nagle / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Michael Nagle / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A pathologist holds a bottle of a COVID-19 test kit. In the United States, various bottlenecks that limited coronavirus testing were problematic in February and persist today.

Michael Nagle / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In early February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were looking for ways to stop the new coronavirus before it got out of hand in the United States.

The agency has selected six cities for sentinel surveillance – a sort of early warning system to detect whether the coronavirus is spreading freely. The idea was to find the virus among patients who had mild respiratory symptoms and no known travel risk factors – patients who were not tested according to CDC guidelines at the time.

To speed up the project, the CDC planned for cities to build on their well-established flu testing programs. Patient samples were already tested for influenza strains. The agency would provide coronavirus tests for a subset of these patients to see if the coronavirus epidemic spreads undetected.

But this quick start of the project was far from being fast in most places. Five weeks later – contrary to statements by senior CDC officials – only one of these cities had the results of the coronavirus tests in hand, according to an NPR survey.



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