HHS Targets Three US Cities for COVID-19 Test Surge

Kerry Dooley Young

July 07, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

WASHINGTON — Federal officials announced plans for stepped-up free COVID-19 testing in cities in three states, while also calling for a nationwide embrace of public health measures to stop the spread of the virus.

The testing surges are planned for Jacksonville, Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Edinburg, Texas, the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) said Tuesday, dubbing these three sites "hot spots" in its press release.

HHS said it intends to create a wave of "surge testing" by offering 5000 tests in each city on each day of the surge, with these diagnostics provided at no charge to those tested. Federal officials will work with the firm eTrueNorth and local communities on this temporary surge, with testing sites active for 5 to 12 days, HHS said.

Even in announcing this testing surge, though, the federal leader on COVID-19 diagnostics stressed a need for Americans to follow basic public health measures to combat the virus. Testing can only aid in these efforts, but the key steps for people to protect themselves and others are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, said Admiral Brett P. Giroir, MD, assistant secretary at HHS, on a media call.

"Testing is going to help. We need to have testing. I'm all about testing. That's what I think about 24/7, but we've got to do physical distancing and take other steps such as wearing masks and shielding older people and other vulnerable groups from the virus," Giroir said.

"The most critical factor is going to be personal discipline," Giroir added, also stressing a need to avoid crowds. "It's the most important thing we can do across the country."

He urged reporters to "proselytize" this message in their stories, while allowing that the federal government could be clearer in conveying this advice. "You tell me how to do it better, and I will do it," Giroir said.

There could be follow-on efforts in which the federal government pairs with other states and communities for surges of COVID-19 testing, Giroir continued. He described the selection process for the initial three cities as involving a combination of targeting areas suffering increased need for tests, along with finding good partners in local health networks ready to participate in a surge.

The idea was to select one site in each of the target states, Giroir said, adding that Jacksonville, Florida, was chosen for these reasons and not political ones.

"I'm going to show you about my political knowledge," Giroir said on the Tuesday call with reporters. "I had no idea that the Republican convention was even in Jacksonville until I called the state health officer and we started talking about that and he told me. That shows you where my mind is."

The Republican National Committee in June shifted its plans for President Donald Trump's August renomination speech and other convention festivities to Jacksonville, Florida, from Charlotte, North Carolina. Trump in May had tweeted about his concern that North Carolina — a state with a Democratic governor — would not allow the convention site to be fully occupied.

On Friday July 10, HHS will post an update on states' plans for COVID-19 testing, although sharing advice about best practices for testing among states has already occurred, Giroir explained. He is optimistic about increased uptake of point-of-care testing for COVID-19, which would relieve pressure on laboratories; health officials have been wary of exhausting testing capacity, he said.

"I'm not saying it's a max now, but we're certainly pushing the frontiers" of what laboratories can handle in terms of processing COVID-19 testing, he said. "That's why point-of-care testing is so important."

The US Food and Drug Administration on Monday issued an emergency authorization for Becton Dickinson's BD Veritor System for Rapid Detection of SARS-CoV-2. Franklin Lakes, New Jersey-based Becton Dickinson said this diagnostic could deliver results in 15 minutes. Slightly larger than a cell phone, the BD Veritor System is already in use at more than 25,000 hospitals, clinician offices, urgent care centers, and retail pharmacies in all 50 US states, the company said.

Between August and September, depending on the product schedule for BD and other diagnostic firms, the point-of-care market could reach between 10 million and 20 million tests per month, substantially lowering the burden on testing labs, Giroir said.

Still, he cautioned there are limits to the more convenient point-of-care approach.

"There's no such thing as a free lunch. The point-of-care tests are a little bit less sensitive than the laboratory-based tests," Giroir said. "If you have a very high suspicion of a person having COVID, a negative test should be repeated by a laboratory test."

HHS said surge testing would begin Tuesday, July 7, at these Louisiana sites:

Louisiana State University
Alex Box Stadium parking lot
Gourrier Avenue
Baton Rouge, LA 70820

Southern University
FG Clark parking lot
801 Harding Blvd
Baton Rouge, LA 70807

Cortana Mall
9701 Cortana Pl.
Baton Rouge, LA 70815

Fairgrounds at BREC's Airline Highway Park
17200 Airline Hwy
Baton Rouge, LA 70118

Note: Baton Rouge will also be performing mobile testing at local long-term healthcare facilities.

On Wednesday, surge testing will begin at these Texas and Florida locations, HHS said.

Bert Ogden Arena (an HEB parking lot)
4900 South I-69C
Edinburg, TX 78542

First Coast High School
590 Duval Station Road
Jacksonville, FL 32218

Regency Mall (Sears building)
9501 Arlington Expressway
Jacksonville FL 32225

Frank A Peterson Academy (Target Area)
7450 Wilson Blvd
Jacksonville, FL 32210

HHS urged people to register ahead of time for testing using this website: www.DoINeedaCOVID19test.com.

On-site registration will be allowed but will take longer than arriving with a pre-registration completed with QR Code either on a cell phone or printed from the registration website, HHS said. People who want to be tested must provide a telephone number and email address. An identification card will not be required.

It will take 3 to 5 days to get test results. People will get mail notifications and then log in to a website to view their results. Test results will also be posted in the eTrueNorth patient portal. There will not be a phone number to call for results, HHS said.

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