NOEL KING, HOST:
NPR has new reporting on how an early government-backed effort to fight COVID-19 ultimately failed. In February, the CDC announced this plan - six cities would test patients with mild symptoms to see if the virus was spreading in those communities. The results would serve as basically an early warning system. But NPR found that project took a month or more to get going in many cities while the virus was spreading.
NPR science correspondent Lauren Sommer has been looking into exactly what happened. Good morning, Lauren.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Morning.
KING: Tell me what you found out about this CDC plan.
SOMMER: Yeah. So these cities - and the ones that the CDC announced in mid-February were Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle - and Honolulu was added a little bit later. They all work with the CDC already to track the flu. They have an existing surveillance system for testing patients to see what flu strains are out there. So the idea was to piggyback on that system to speed things up and run some of those patient samples for coronavirus, too. It's what's known as sentinel surveillance.
KING: Sentinel surveillance - so who would have been tested?
SOMMER: Yeah, these would be patients with mild respiratory symptoms. But they didn't meet the CDC guidelines for testing at the time. This was when coronavirus testing was extremely limited. That's because most states couldn't run the CDC tests because of problems with the test kits. So there was a lot of concern that if people were getting coronavirus in their communities, it would go undetected because almost nobody could get a test.
KING: So let me ask you - this was six cities kind of as test cases. What role was this surveillance supposed to play in a full-on national response?
SOMMER: Well, it was supposed to be a proactive way to look for the virus. That's what the CDC said about a month after they announced these cities. CDC Director Robert Redfield and Dr. Anthony Fauci testified in front of a House committee that the surveillance testing was already underway.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: That's trying to get a feel for what's out there. And that's what the CDC is doing now in six sentinel cities, and they will expand that throughout the country.
SOMMER: But the day he said that, only one of those cities actually had any test results from these surveillance projects.
KING: Oh, that's interesting. Why was it only one city?
SOMMER: Yeah. Well, good one to look at is maybe Los Angeles. County health officials there were in discussions with the hospital to do this testing on mildly symptomatic patients. But Dr. Prabhu Gounder of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health told me that the hospital's board declined to be part of it.
PRABHU GOUNDER: We only had one confirmed COVID-19 case in LA County. And they were concerned that if the second case in LA County was linked to this hospital that there would be a certain stigma that would potentially be bad for the hospital.
SOMMER: He says that the hospital was concerned that patients would be anxious and avoid the hospital. Now, county health officials declined to name this hospital because they said they agreed to keep discussions confidential.
KING: OK. So that's LA. That's one city. What happened with testing in the other five?
SOMMER: Well, most of them also struggled to get it going. For example, New York City didn't get results from its sentinel testing until March 31. I couldn't get more information about why it took so long there. I mean, the city's public health department is overwhelmed right now.
SOMMER: But at that point, the testing was too late to be useful. There were already 40,000 cases. Seattle tried to get going in February, too, using an academic lab. But the CDC didn't approve it at the time, and it took another month to get started.
KING: If this had worked on time, would it have saved lives?
SOMMER: I mean, it's a good question. It's hard to say. The CDC told me it doesn't think so and the delays happened because it was dealing with a new virus. But from what I've found, it's clear that having this hard data about community spread, it spurred cities to act. And epidemiologists say weeks, even days, could make a difference in preventing medical systems from being overwhelmed.
KING: NPR science reporter Lauren Sommer. Thanks, Lauren.
SOMMER: Thank you.
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