Video by NBC News
Top federal health officials on Saturday said they don’t know how many people in the U.S. have been tested for coronavirus — or how many will need to be in the coming weeks.
The health officials, in an untelevised briefing at the White House, also defended President Donald Trump’s claim on Friday that anyone seeking a test can get one, even as state officials voice frustration with the availability of tests.
Federal government labs have tested specimens for 1,583 people, but the Trump administration does not have figures for the numbers of people tested at state and local labs, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn told reporters. They said said that 5,861 specimens have been tested across the country, but it’s not clear how many people that translates to because each test requires multiple specimens and people get multiple tests.
The administration has previously struggled to communicate how many tests have been conducted. Azar last Sunday said more than 3,600 people had been tested, but two days later Anne Schuchat, a top CDC official, testified in the Senate that more than 3,000 specimens had been taken from 500 people — a fraction of what Azar claimed.
By Friday night, 1.1 million tests had been shipped out, Hahn said. That was just shy of the 1.5 million that Vice President Mike Pence had said would be available to hospitals this week. Hahn said diagnostic manufacturers believe they can churn out 4 million tests by the end of next week.
But frustration is growing among state health officials who say they do not have the tests needed as cases rack up in California, New York and Washington state. Meanwhile some people have taken to Twitter and Reddit to say they were turned away from testing because they did not have a clear link to someone already infected.
Trump officials said Trump’s claim that “anyone who wants a test can get a test” was accurate, but that people still need the approval of their doctors and state public health officials. But on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that that “we don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward.”
Asked in the White House briefing about the discrepancy between Trump and Pence’s language, Azar said, “It’s just different ways of phrasing it.”
“He’s using a shorthand,” Azar said. “We’re getting capacity out there.”
Azar declined to estimate how many people would need tests going forward, saying only that if “very aggressive containment” and community efforts worked out, the country could end up with surplus testing capacity.
Azar added that Washington, California and New York “have everything they’ve asked for in terms of diagnostics” from the federal government.
Meanwhile Pence, speaking in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after a meeting with cruise executives on Saturday, told reporters that, “Doctors can prescribe tests to anyone in America regardless of their symptoms.”
Lorraine Woellert contributed to this report.