Testing has been one of the Achilles' heels of the U.S. response to COVID-19. With not enough testing kits, it's been impossible for public health officials to adequately identify and track the scope of the virus across the U.S.
But Mayo Clinic has been a bright spot in this fight with its ability to ramp up testing capacity. That was illustrated recently when the clinic helped the Minnesota Department of Health eliminate a backlog of 800 specimens.
The PB talked to Dr. Bobbi Pritt, a testing expert and a director in Mayo's Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, about the challenges that lie ahead.
PB: Does our ability to contain this virus rely on rolling out and expanding our ability to test for COVID-19?
Pritt: That is part of it. Having the ability to test is part of the identification and containment strategy.
But other strategies rely on having people stay home if they're not feeling well. I would also agree that having tests is very important, especially for people with severe illness, because they're going to need to come into the hospital. You're going to need to know what they have, so you can accurately treat them.
PB: Germany and Singapore have reportedly had strong and successful public health responses to the coronavirus because of their ability to test lots of people. To what degree will testing be part of the solution that will bring life back to normal in the U.S?
Pritt: We're definitely going to need to ramp up around the country. There are different stages to an outbreak. During the acute stage, you're trying to test people and see what's in the community. As it peaks, there may be a time where we need people to stay home if they have a mild illness and not get tested. Later, as it starts to go down — and I'm optimistic we will reach that point — we may perform tests to see retrospectively if people were infected.
PB: Mayo was the first develop a test with results in 24 hours. Are you working to improve the test?
Pritt: We're not working on improving the test as much as we are expanding the number of tests we can perform. When we first rolled this out — we had a lab test developed here at Mayo Clinic — we could only do a few hundred a day, but we very quickly ramped up. We are now testing 4,000 a day. That's working three shifts around the clock. We're hoping in the next couple of days to go up to 5,000 tests in a 24-hour period.
PB: What is limiting your testing goals?
Pritt: Nationwide, all of us are facing shortages of everything you can imagine, like the swabs you use to collect the specimen, the liquid that you put the specimen in. We have people who want to send us tests, and we actually still have a little bit of capacity to perform more tests, but people don't have the swabs and don't have the transport liquid media to send us the specimens in.
So we're now trying to make our own transport media, and we're trying to package it up and send it to people to help in any way we can.
PB: What's it like to be a technician in your lab in these frenzied times?
Pritt: We are really trying to watch out for the safety and well-being of staff. We're also developing plans in case one group of individuals becomes sick. Then they might all be taken out of work at the same time, so we're developing backup teams.
I think there's a spirit that everyone is working together, and what they're doing is very important.
PB: NPR reported that President Trump made an urgent request to South Korean President for testing kits. Does this underscore how unprepared we were as a country for a pandemic?
Pritt: I would say to some extent. I think we've learned that having more stockpiled supplies, for example, and perhaps some changes in the regulatory structure would be helpful. We have some labs that can quickly respond, and so empowering those labs to respond in a time of crisis is something that the government is looking at.
PB: What is it about this virus that set it apart?
Pritt: The regular coronavirus causes the common cold, and it's a relatively common, mild illness. And they circulate among humans, so they're pretty much adapted to being with humans. But this new virus, like the SARS coronavirus and the MERS coronavirus, come from animals. And humans don't have any existing protection and immunity against them. So we're seeing it for the first time, and our bodies are responding in a way that''s making us sick.