Local health departments struggling to find enough staff to carry out a massive vaccination campaign are finding that another key weapon against the coronavirus is being threatened: testing capacity.
Health officials across the country are facing tough decisions on whether to close testing sites or cut back on hours because they don’t have enough funding or staff to administer both vaccinations and testing.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he had spoken with health officials in Stamford, Conn., who “don’t have enough money right now to be able to both keep up their testing and distribute vaccine, so they're going to have to make a choice.”
“That is absolutely devastating,” he said on a call hosted by Coronavirus War Room, a Democratic group.
“I’m hearing that every place in the country,” Nicole Lurie, a former assistant secretary of Health and Human Services and an adviser to President-elect Joe Biden's team, said on a call with reporters. “There's just not enough personnel, enough bandwidth [to do both].”
For example, Los Angeles closed its large testing site at Dodger Stadium, converting it instead into a vaccination site. The city acknowledged the move would “temporarily reduce testing capacity in L.A. County,” but on the other hand would “more than triple the number of daily vaccines available to be dispersed to Angelenos.”
Collier County, Florida, closed most of its testing sites to make way for vaccine distribution, the local NBC affiliate reported. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has directed the state to find testing sites that can be shifted to vaccination locations.
The tensions illustrate how local health departments that have long raised the alarm about funding shortages are now scrambling to secure resources for multiple monumental tasks against the pandemic at the same time.
It is not clear exactly how much testing has been cut back nationwide, and some areas said they have been able to administer both tests and vaccines. But even vaccinating requires a surge of new staff.
Congress provided $8.75 billion in vaccine distribution funding in the long-delayed package that was finally signed at the end of December. That measure also included $22 billion for testing and contact tracing.
Advocates are hoping that money will soon start showing up at the local level.
Biden on Thursday proposed an even bigger infusion from the federal government: $20 billion for vaccines, $50 billion for testing, and the hiring of 100,000 new public health workers for tasks like vaccine outreach and contact tracing.
“The vaccine rollout in the United States has been a dismal failure thus far,” Biden said while rolling out his plan, taking aim at the Trump administration’s handling of the task.
Biden has set a goal of 100 million shots in the first 100 days of his presidency, which will require an acceleration of the current pace.
“You have my word: We will manage the hell out of this operation,” Biden said Friday in providing more details of his vaccine plan. “But as I said last night, we need funding from Congress to make this happen.”
But until that happens, as virus levels continue to spike and a more contagious variant poses an even greater risk, localities are facing a crunch.
“I hope it doesn't impact [testing],” said Julie Vaishampayan, public health officer for Stanislaus County, California. “It is hard to find staff to do everything though, I do have to say."
Experts say widespread testing is still crucial to containing the virus given that broad availability of vaccines and herd immunity are still months away.
“If the tradeoff is testing or vaccinations, then that’s a false tradeoff,” said Thomas Tsai, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “There does need to be dedicated testing support and funding.”
The country is “many, many months away” from having vaccinated enough people that widespread testing will no longer be necessary, he said. “What we really need is to ramp this up on a nation level to increase our public health workforce,” he added.
Lori Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said many health departments have been reporting pressure on testing capability.
“I have heard that things like testing hours, pop-up testing clinics, that sort of thing, have had to be shortened due to resources,” she said. “I've heard that across health departments.”
The pressure comes as coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations all set records. There are now more than 200,000 new daily cases and more than 3,000 deaths every day in the U.S. from COVID-19.