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The Latest On Coronavirus In The United States


OK, to the latest coronavirus news now. The number of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 now stands at nine, all of them in the Seattle area. Health officials there and in California are struggling to get a handle on outbreaks that spring up in communities and cannot be traced back to previously known cases. The shortage of tests is now a critical issue.

Joining us with the latest is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hey again, Richard.


KELLY: It feels like we keep talking about this fact that it's the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that's been running all of the tests, which has created this bottleneck. When is that going to change? When might states, local governments be able to run the tests themselves?

HARRIS: Well, soon. It is actually changing right now. And that question was very much on the minds of senators, who held a hearing on this today. An official from the CDC said their much-delayed test is now being sent out to public health labs coast to coast, and by the end of the week, they'll have the capacity to test 75,000 samples. At the same time, sophisticated labs have been given the green light to develop their own tests. So both of those things will help.

KELLY: Will it help enough? I mean, will that be enough to meet the demand?

HARRIS: I don't think so, certainly not right away. But more help is imminent. A company has taken the CDC test protocol and has rapidly been sort of manufacturing a test based on that. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said with that effort, that could put a million tests in hospitals by the end of the week. But Washington Senator Patty Murray, who's a Democrat, said she's been hearing skepticism from health experts in her state about that.


PATTY MURRAY: Do you really believe that a million tests will be available by the end of this week?

STEPHEN HAHN: Senator, let me just explain that one. So the companies that we're working with on this - they have the capacity to develop 2,500 test kits by the end of the week. That should give us the capacity, in the hands of laboratories, once they validate, to perform up to a million tests.

MURRAY: Twenty-five hundred kits will...

HAHN: Kits - and 500 tests per kit.

HARRIS: Of course, it takes a long time to gather samples, which are nose and throat swabs. And it takes expertise to run these tests as well. It does help that a lab can run these in large batches, so places that have high volume, like a major medical center, could probably do this. But it's not going to help individual doctors' offices. It's not going to help thousands of hospitals around the country 'cause they, you know, even - you know, really, it's a very sort of still mass produced test.

KELLY: Testing aside, I mentioned all of the deaths so far have been in Washington state. What else are they doing there to try to control the outbreak?

HARRIS: Well, one thing local officials there have done is they decided to close some schools. But at that same Senate hearing today, CDC Deputy Director Anne Schuchat urged caution with that approach. School closings, she pointed out, does far more than just disrupt education.


ANNE SCHUCHAT: Because so many depend on school lunches and other services that are at schools. So it's a local decision. If there's too many people sick, of course you can't keep going. But really trying to protect the vulnerable and reduce the spread but not disrupt families and all those parents who will be staying home if their kids are home.

HARRIS: And she pointed out that health officials tried mass school closings during the flu pandemic of 2009, but it became apparent that that really wasn't helping much. And, in fact, it was causing some of those complications she was talking about, so they ended up abandoning that strategy.

This is, of course, a different disease. And one thing that's interesting about it is that kids don't appear to be really getting sick from it. But they can spread it, so...

KELLY: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...So that's - you've got to sort of weigh both of those things when you're thinking about school closings. But it will be - you know, it'll be awhile to know - before we know whether that really makes sense.

KELLY: Thank you, Richard.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

KELLY: NPR's Richard Harris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.