The Planet Money Team runs a test on the U.S. Covid testing system. : Planet Money The Planet Money team fans out across the nation with one goal: to get a Covid test in 24 hours. It is easier said than done. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

The rapid testing show

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:

Team PLANET MONEY, hello.

DAVE BLANCHARD, BYLINE: Hello.

COREY BRIDGES, BYLINE: Hello.

EMMA PEASLEE, BYLINE: Hey, Amanda.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: What up? What up?

ARONCZYK: Thank you for joining me today. And thank you for agreeing to this mission. Over the next 24 hours, you will travel to strange locations. You will wait in the cold or the sleet, maybe worse. Today, my friends, I want you to go get a COVID test.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: All right.

ARONCZYK: Are you willing and able?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Oh, yeah.

PEASLEE: Yeah.

MOLLY MESSICK, BYLINE: Yes.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I'm a little scared, but I'll do it.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter) OK. Good enough (laughter). You guys, tell our listeners where you are.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I'm in Santa Fe, N.M.

BLANCHARD: I'm in Portland, Ore.

PEASLEE: I'm in Chapel Hill, N.C.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: Los Angeles, Calif.

BRIDGES: Richmond, Va.

MESSICK: I'm in New Paltz, N.Y.

ARONCZYK: And I'm in New York City. All right, so are there any questions?

PEASLEE: Is there a preference for test?

ARONCZYK: No. That is a very good question. You can go get an antigen test. You can go get a PCR test, whatever test you can find.

BLANCHARD: Is it a race?

ARONCZYK: It is not a race, but you have 24 hours to accomplish this goal. And then at the end, I will check back in with you guys.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Is there a way to win?

PEASLEE: I was just going to ask that.

(LAUGHTER)

ARONCZYK: Is there a way to win? Let me think about it, and I will get back to you. OK, Team PLANET MONEY, the 24-hour clock starts in three, two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

ARONCZYK: Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Good luck, team. Good luck out there.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Woo.

ARONCZYK: Woo, woo, woo. Go get COVID tests.

PEASLEE: Woo.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Get tested. To the testing hunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HALIDAY'S "BIG BAND SHOWTIME")

ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. If you've tried to get a COVID test lately, you might've noticed it is a journey - or at least it can be. Depending on where you are, tests might be really easy to get, or they might be un-gettable. What is behind this mess? Right now, the government's trying to fix it, but it's not clear if their plans are going to do the trick. Today on the show, we race around the country looking for tests and see what kinds of problems we run into. We have a guest commentator along for the ride to explain what is behind the wild ups and downs of trying to get a COVID test.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE HALIDAY'S "BIG BAND SHOWTIME")

FOUNTAIN: All right. Got to put on my shoes.

PEASLEE: Walking to my car.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I left my house about 15 minutes ago. I stopped and I got a delicious burrito. I don't know if we're going to factor that into our time here.

PEASLEE: Can't find my car keys. Not a good start. Not a good start.

BRIDGES: All right, we're getting closer. We got some construction on the side, so forgive me for that.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This place appears to be next to a pretty sizable chicken coop.

PEASLEE: Oh, they're in my pocket. OK.

BRIDGES: Oh, my God. There it is. There's a tent. I think it says free COVID testing on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARON WRIGHT'S "QUIRK DU CIRQUE")

ARONCZYK: So here is what we are going to do today. The PLANET MONEY team is outdoing the not-so-amazing race to try to get COVID tests not just for an economic experiment, but also because everyone had reasons to get tested. And with the team so spread out and different cities and states handling testing so differently, we wanted to see it for ourselves. I told everyone to check back with me and with my expert, who will help explain any strange things we find.

Can you introduce yourself?

JAY VARMA: Sure. My name is Dr. Jay Varma, and I am the director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response in New York City.

ARONCZYK: Over the past 20 years, Jay has mostly worked for the government, trying to stop outbreaks of Ebola or Legionnaires' disease or SARS. And most recently, he helped New York City set up its COVID testing program. He says if you are fighting a pandemic, it all starts with testing.

VARMA: People like myself - I have spent my career trying to promote the early detection and response to epidemics - have spent most of our careers not working on drugs to treat infections or even necessarily vaccines, but trying to figure out who is sick and who is not because that is the first step to everything.

ARONCZYK: Every decision follows testing - big ones, like when can we open up the economy again, and individual ones, like can I send my kid to school tomorrow. Testing leads to more informed decisions - around whether the vaccines are working, what kinds of medicines we need, should we be in lockdown, can we reopen the border, et cetera, et cetera. You get it. And right now in the U.S., testing is not working, which starts to become clear with the first callback from the team, caller No. 1 - Nick.

FOUNTAIN: Amanda.

ARONCZYK: Hello, Nick Fountain.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, my God. It is so sketchy where I am right now.

ARONCZYK: Nick was in Los Angeles trying to figure out if the test he just got was legit.

Where are you?

FOUNTAIN: So I left my house. I walked 3 1/2 blocks and I ran across - here, I'm going to turn my camera around...

ARONCZYK: OK.

FOUNTAIN: ...This tent (laughter).

ARONCZYK: OK. Yeah, yeah. It's a tiny, little tent with a sign up...

FOUNTAIN: Right.

ARONCZYK: ...Says COVID-19 delta variant.

FOUNTAIN: And underneath the tent is just one woman who has a hat that says, Mom's off day, and a wineglass. She's right outside an AutoZone parking lot. I got swabbed pretty quickly. And then afterwards she, like, took my little swab and put it in a little vial and put that in a little Ziploc bag...

ARONCZYK: (Laughter).

FOUNTAIN: ...And then put that Ziploc bag into a Marshalls reusable shopping bag.

ARONCZYK: Wait a minute, Nick. You actually did your test at this tent?

FOUNTAIN: Oh, yeah.

ARONCZYK: So Nick's test seems shady, but then again, he didn't give them any money.

Nick, did you give this random person under a tent your credit card number or your bank card or key to your crypto?

FOUNTAIN: No, it was free. And interestingly, I was like, hey, I don't have insurance today - whatever. I didn't have my insurance number. And she's like, oh, that's fine. Don't worry about it. All right.

ARONCZYK: So I brought Nick's case to Dr. Jay Varma and asked him, did Nick just take a legitimate COVID test, or was he somehow scammed?

VARMA: Well, it's a really interesting question, and I think this is probably one of the challenges that everybody's facing, right? You'll see a sign set up. It says COVID testing. And you don't really know whether it's legitimate or not. It's possibly legitimate.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter).

VARMA: You know, I would...

ARONCZYK: Possibly legitimate - all right. All right.

VARMA: Without having seen it, I can't know for sure. I mean, so here's the thing about testing that people may not understand, and it relates to the kind of economics and business operations, is that there are really two main components of testing. One is who collects your specimen. And the second is what lab actually tests the specimen itself.

ARONCZYK: Jay says, here is how to look at Nick's test. Nick got a PCR test - the kind that has to be processed in a heavily regulated and specialized lab. But it doesn't have to be collected at a lab. And if you're in the middle of, you know, a global pandemic, you want to bring the tests to the people - hence tents.

VARMA: That's why you can get these operations, you know, where Joe's rapid testing site gets set up, where they put up a tent somewhere and they form a contractual relationship with a lab and are collecting specimens and doing it.

ARONCZYK: Jay says that the fact that it is a tent with a sign printed at - I don't know - Kinko's doesn't mean that it's not legit. When he was helping set up New York City's testing program, they set up hundreds of tents. The tents are really helpful. They make testing convenient. It's easier to set up than a building. And you can put tents in neighborhoods that need better access to testing. But how do we tell if Nick's tent is for real?

VARMA: The one thing that would lead me to believe that this is a government site is the fact that they didn't ask for any insurance information.

ARONCZYK: They also didn't ask for any money, so that seemed like a good sign. The other thing Jay suggested we look for was the name of a lab and the name of a doctor.

VARMA: Now, the people doing the collection don't have to be physicians themselves, but there generally has to be some type of what we call authorizing physician. So, you know, one of the questions to ask is, well, who is the physician overseeing this? Who is the medical provider that actually requested the tests? And that'll give you some idea about who set this up and who's running it.

ARONCZYK: OK, so now I know what to look for - an authorizing physician and the name of a lab. I am going to look into both of these things for Nick, and we'll see what kind of follow-up he gets on the test.

Caller No. 2 - Dave.

BLANCHARD: Hello.

ARONCZYK: Dave Blanchard, how's it going?

BLANCHARD: Good, though I'm not feeling very confident. I was sort of thinking that this would be an easy task, but it's a total shutout for me so far.

ARONCZYK: Remind people where you are.

BLANCHARD: So I'm in Portland.

ARONCZYK: OK.

BLANCHARD: And I've tried going through the Oregon Health Authority's website, and they're all booked out, like, a week ahead of time. So I've turned to secondary markets. And this sounds questionable when I say it out loud, but I think I'm going to try to get a COVID test off of Craigslist.

ARONCZYK: (Laughter) Oh.

BLANCHARD: So there's one that was posted about three hours ago - COVID-19 home test, brand-new, unopened, result in 10 minutes, two tests in one box. Price is firm. Text for fastest response. It's listed for $50, which is definitely an upcharge from, like, the pharmacy price, which I think - usually around, like, 20, 25. So I guess I'm going to go do this.

ARONCZYK: All right. Good luck, Dave. Text me the word mango...

BLANCHARD: (Laughter).

ARONCZYK: ...If you're worried about anything.

BLANCHARD: OK. That sounds good - mango.

ARONCZYK: And I guess I would just say, meet the person outside.

BLANCHARD: Yeah. They've been very responsive.

ARONCZYK: I'm sure they have. They're about to make some money off you, Dave.

(LAUGHTER)

ARONCZYK: Don't worry. I did hear from Dave shortly after this call. There were no panicky mango texts. He Venmoed the stranger 50 bucks. She gave him a legitimate, FDA-approved rapid test. I explained Dave's case to Dr. Jay Varma.

Walgreens - they don't have it. So he ended up buying a test for 50 bucks on Craigslist - one of these rapid tests.

VARMA: Yeah. It sounds to me kind of like a Beanie Babies or Xbox-type situation around Christmas, right?

ARONCZYK: Yeah.

VARMA: Like, I guess if I was really in a crunch for cash, I would sell the five boxes of tests, you know, that we keep stashed in our house at all times.

ARONCZYK: Now, while Nick got a PCR test, Dave bought a rapid test. These are very different kinds of tests. But no matter what kind of test you get, the prices you can pay are all over the place. You can get them for free, or you can pay $489, which is an actual price I saw for a quick-turnaround PCR test in Manhattan.

VARMA: I know of laboratories that have, you know, essentially a VIP lane, right? If you have a private laboratory and a private medical provider, as long as you disclose all of the information about the costs upfront, I'm not aware that there's any restriction on doing that.

ARONCZYK: Jay, why is this the system - that it's such a hodgepodge?

VARMA: Hodgepodge is probably the polite word to use...

(LAUGHTER)

VARMA: ...That doesn't rhyme with, you know, pit-go (ph)...

(LAUGHTER)

VARMA: ...For how you might describe our, you know, U.S. health care system.

ARONCZYK: Why is testing such a pit-go (ph) with tests costing such a wide range of prices? Well, first of all, it took a while for some of the rapid tests to get approved, so there weren't very many companies making them. Abbott, the company that makes BinaxNOW, said they didn't need to lower their prices. There just wasn't enough competition to bother.

Jay says that the second reason testing is such a pit-go (ph) can be traced back to a decision that both the Trump and Biden administrations made. They could've been a major consistent buyer of tests. That's what the government did with the COVID vaccines with Operation Warp Speed. The government promised to buy vaccines and removed a lot of the risk for companies.

VARMA: What we had in Operation Warp Speed, that's kind of the analog that we need, really, for testing if we want to avoid these types of bottlenecks that we're running into right now.

ARONCZYK: Without consistent demand, like from the government, testing companies are just following the ebbs and flows of the pandemic. When delta or omicron comes on the scene, they scramble to make more. When cases fall, they make less. But they don't time it perfectly, and that leads to shortages and, like, Dave buying a test for 50 bucks, which is better than not finding a test at all - which brings us to our last caller, caller No. 3, Molly.

Hello, Molly.

MESSICK: Hi.

ARONCZYK: So remind our listeners, where are you?

MESSICK: Right now, I'm in New Paltz, N.Y., so about an hour and a half outside of New York City.

ARONCZYK: Molly started her search by making some phone calls.

MESSICK: So I called, like, an urgent care. I called a pediatrician's office.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bambini Pediatrics.

MESSICK: There was just, like, no one even answering the phone.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: There are 14 callers in the queue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS")

JULIE ANDREWS: (As Mary Poppins, singing) It's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

MESSICK: And then I got some really fun hold music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS")

ANDREWS: (As Mary Poppins, singing) Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious.

MESSICK: (Laughter) OK.

ARONCZYK: On-brand hold music. OK, so then what did you do?

MESSICK: So I went to Walgreens.

Oh. Here's a sign. We are out of COVID rapid tests. Sorry for any inconvenience.

And then I went to Tops.

I've got my fingers crossed that this will be the solution again.

And then finally, I went to ShopRite.

This is where you all usually have COVID tests. Is that right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

MESSICK: And you don't have - you don't...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No. We were supposed to get them Tuesday. We never received it.

MESSICK: At that point, I'd spent 2 1/2 hours trying to get tested, and I just kind of gave up.

ARONCZYK: Molly did not find a COVID test. I laid out what happened to Dr. Jay Varma.

We're at this moment where people are supposed to get tested to sometimes go to their jobs, get tested to go to school, get tested to travel. What are you supposed to do if you just can't find it?

VARMA: Oh, I wish I had a good answer for that. This is...

ARONCZYK: (Laughter).

VARMA: I just have to say it is just absolutely shocking to me that the U.S. ended up in this situation. So for people like Molly, unfortunately, all they have are our thoughts and prayers at this time.

ARONCZYK: So that's what the doctor's got. Jay says this is the worst outcome of a system that cannot keep up.

VARMA: Well, what you're seeing is a stress test on one aspect of our health care system, which is the diagnostic process.

ARONCZYK: Diagnostics usually work through a bunch of public and private labs. And that patchwork - it's been struggling with the huge demand for tests.

VARMA: On any given day, let's say 10% of the U.S. population is trying to get this one specific laboratory test performed. And it's, you know, the economic equivalent of a run on the bank, right? Everybody's like, OK, well, today's the day I need to get my money out. Well, the bank isn't set up for that. So you'd get long lines. So all of these problems that those of us who work on public health have known about are just being put upfront in the extreme and visualizable to everybody.

ARONCZYK: Thoughts and prayers, Molly. Thoughts and prayers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS")

ANDREWS: (As Mary Poppins, singing) Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

ARONCZYK: Up next, we gather the team together again and find out who managed to get a test within 24 hours and who got their results back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We're only doing the PCR today. We have no rapid in the state. So this is for you.

PEASLEE: Oh, do I do it myself?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, just...

BLANCHARD: OK, here's the fun part.

BRIDGES: I've never stuck anything into my nose like this before, so this is going to be an interesting thing.

BLANCHARD: Swab out.

FOUNTAIN: How far? All the way?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Pulling down the mask. Oh, boy. All right - ow. Went a little deep there.

BRIDGES: Nasty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARONCZYK: So testing in many places in the U.S., it is broken - scam tests, secondary markets, no tests. But it is not like this everywhere. And so for just a moment, let's go to a place that has not seen the same testing woes that we have - the U.K. As you've probably heard, it has been a lot easier to get tested in the U.K.

Hello, NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Amanda.

ARONCZYK: So you are at home outside London. How many COVID tests do you think are within, like, 100 feet of where you're sitting right now?

LANGFITT: Well, I can tell you exactly that number. It's 14. I have them downstairs.

ARONCZYK: And the 14 tests that are in your house right now, how much did you pay for those?

LANGFITT: Zero.

ARONCZYK: What about for the shipping? You must have paid for shipping.

LANGFITT: No, no. It's free. Everything is free.

ARONCZYK: OK, Frank, now you're just bragging.

LANGFITT: No, no, no. I'm not bragging. And believe me. I write mostly critical stories (laughter) about the British government when it comes to COVID. But when they get something right, you know, that deserves to be noted.

ARONCZYK: During our call, Frank uses not just one, but two rapid tests.

The - there was an error with the first one.

LANGFITT: This is a new one. I'm going to do it again.

ARONCZYK: But don't worry about Frank. He's not running out.

LANGFITT: After we get off this, I will order more tests.

ARONCZYK: Wouldn't you love to have it more like Frank? The U.S. is trying. The details are still being worked out as we are recording this episode, but the government says it is buying a billion tests to give to Americans for free, ASAP. Also, people with insurance can now, in theory, get reimbursed for buying those rapid tests. But Dr. Jay Varma doesn't think these measures will be quite enough.

VARMA: In theory, you could and probably should, you know, in an ideal world, test yourself multiple times a week to make sure you're not asymptomatically spreading this infection to other people, especially if, as is likely to happen, we're going to continue to see waves of this infection. And we're going to continue to need to have testing be one of the many tools that we have.

ARONCZYK: President Biden's announcement was a little too little and a little too late for our test-taking team and possibly also for this latest COVID wave. So here is what happened to us. I sent six people out on this mission. For three people, it was actually pretty easy to get a test and to get a result. For the other half, the ones that you heard from - Nick, Dave and Molly - not so much.

FOUNTAIN: Test one, two.

ARONCZYK: We all got back together on a Zoom call.

FOUNTAIN: We're rolling.

BLANCHARD: Rolling.

MESSICK: Rolling.

PEASLEE: Rolling.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I'm rolling. Ah, la, la, la. Yeah.

ARONCZYK: There were a few loose ends to tie up.

So, Nick, you gave me the name of the lab and the name of the physician, and I did look into it. They both check out, and the California Department of Public Health said, yes, that test that you took was free. There is no secret bill coming later. But what I was wondering was, did you ever get a result?

FOUNTAIN: No.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Aw.

ARONCZYK: Nick.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Sorry, buddy.

ARONCZYK: You didn't get a result from your PCR test?

FOUNTAIN: No, and I keep, like, texting them. Like, the last text message I sent to them was, like, ??? And they have not responded.

ARONCZYK: Well, I guess the turnaround time for lab tests has gotten very long.

FOUNTAIN: It's also possible that my handwriting is terrible and that they just couldn't read my phone number and tell me my test results. So many things could've happened.

ARONCZYK: Yeah, that's true. OK, so the good news is that everyone who did get a result back was COVID-negative.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yay.

BRIDGES: Yeah.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Woo.

BLANCHARD: We are bucking the national trend.

ARONCZYK: So as you know, the system is about to change, and you should be able to get reimbursed by your insurance for a rapid test. And in theory, the government is supposed to be mailing you some tests soon.

BLANCHARD: Will the government reimburse me for my Craigslist...

(LAUGHTER)

BLANCHARD: ...Secondhand test?

ARONCZYK: I think you're on your own there with that one, Dave. Thank you, everybody, for participating.

BLANCHARD: Wait. Who won?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah, wait. I know. It's true. Who did win (laughter)?

ARONCZYK: I decided that there were no losers. You were all winners for trying to get tested.

MESSICK: I feel like I was the loser. I feel like that's pretty clear.

(LAUGHTER)

ARONCZYK: Yeah. Maybe Molly - maybe that's fair. Maybe Molly was the loser.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW ALEXANDER HOLLAND'S "BOURBON STREET BLUES")

ARONCZYK: If you are running into new and unusual situations as the pandemic enters its third year - wow, I hate saying that - we want to hear about it. Email us at planetmoney@npr.org. We're also on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok - @planetmoney.

Today's show was produced by Emma Peaslee with help from Dave Blanchard. It was mastered by Isaac Rodrigues and edited by Jess Jiang and Molly Messick. PLANET MONEY's executive producer is Alex Goldmark. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW ALEXANDER HOLLAND'S "BOURBON STREET BLUES")

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