The project, coming as testing capacity is being strained by an upswing of covid-19 cases in parts of the South and the West, is focused in particular on ferreting out cases among relatively young adults who may not have symptoms and may be unaware they are spreading the potentially deadly virus.
“We can’t test our way out of this,” Brett P. Giroir, an HHS assistant secretary who is the administration’s coronavirus testing coordinator, said of the nation’s recent run of record new cases. But identifying unwitting spreaders, he said, can prompt those people to isolate themselvesand increase awareness of the important of wearing masks, keeping safe distances, washing hands and protecting the elderly or those who have other vulnerabilities.
Giroir said the three communities were selected from a list of 10 locations developed by Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator. The list contains medium-size metropolitan areas with worsening outbreaks and a well-developed state or local ability to perform coronavirus testing onto which the federal surge could be grafted.
“Don’t get the impression they are the bottom of the barrel,” Giroir said during a conference call with journalists.
Jacksonville also is the site late next month of most of the Republican National Convention, where President Trump is expected to be nomated formally as the GOP presidential candidate in his effort to be reelected. The event was shifted there a few weeks ago from Charlotte,after North Carolina’s governor refused because of the pandemic to guarantee that convention-goers could fill the original arena.
Asked whether the convention was a factor in Jacksonville’s inclusion in the surge testing, Giroir replied, “I had no idea the Republican convention was even in Jacksonville until I called the state health officer and he told me. That shows you where my mind is. . . . It makes no difference to me what’s going on in any town. It just met the public health criteria.”
According to Washington Post data, Duval County, with Jacksonville as its county seat, has more than 9,800 cases, the sixth highest in Florida. As of Tuesday, it had a seven-day average of new daily covid-19 cases of 518, compared with 21 a month ago.
Hidalgo County, Tex., where Edinburg is the county seat, has more than 5,300 cases, the state’s seventh highest. It currently has a seven-day average of new daily cases of 293, compared with 20 a month ago.
Baton Rouge is split between two Louisiana parishes. One of them, East Baton Rouge, has that state’s third highest number of cases — about 6,200. And its seven-day average of new cases — 253 as of Tuesday — is essentially unchanged from a month ago.
Giroir said that federal officials might expand the surge testing to other sides on Birx’s list — or potentially add to that list — but first wanted to assess whether the testing at the initial three sites dampened the virus’s spread.
He said that the number of diagnostic tests performed nationwide had peaked at more than 700,000 one day last week and has been averaging around 600,000. New cases are reaching record levels many days, in large part based on huge outbreaks in California, Texas and Florida.
Such proliferation of cases, Giroir said, are causing testing in parts of the country to near its capacity, and one consequence is longer times for people to get their test results. He said that just two places, Missouri and the District of Columbia, currently have average wait times of four to five days for results to come back.
Under the surge project, laboratories have promised to turn around results within 48 hours of receiving specimens, so that people who get tested might encounter overall waits of three or four days from the time of heir test.
Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.
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