STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The nation has learned how many ways coronavirus testing can be slowed down or stopped. You need a test kit that is not defective. You need a proper cotton swab, protective gear for the tester and a way to process the test. Labs doing that work are overwhelmed. We're paying the price for a dozen years of budget cuts to labs. That's according to an analysis of state budgets by APM Reports, an investigative unit with American Public Media. Tom Scheck reports.
TOM SCHECK, BYLINE: Before Alaska's first coronavirus case was discovered last month, Bernard Jilly was already worrying about the potential impact on his lab. Alaska's Public Health Lab director has struggled with repeated budget cuts. Earlier this month, the lab was doing about 300 tests a day and Jilly was worried about a testing surge.
BERNARD JILLY: If we double the amount of testing I have to do, it would get a little bit scary.
SCHECK: Jilly worried about a lack of testing products and staffing. He says he responded to demand by shifting existing staff, hiring back retirees and contacting colleges to find experienced faculty and students. While he appreciates the new funding now being rushed to assist labs, it doesn't translate to immediate help.
JILLY: When all of a sudden you have your positions eliminated, you just can't go to the microbiology kiosk and drop your quarter in and get another microbiologist.
SCHECK: Bernard Jilly isn't the only lab director who's scrambling. Monterey County, Calif., Public Health Lab director Donna Ferguson says there are six college students working in her lab for free.
DONNA FERGUSON: I worry about these students because, yes, they're skilled and they can perform these techniques, but they don't have the years of training.
SCHECK: The testing is complicated. Lab personnel have to collect the specimens and remove the swabs from the tubes. They then remove the RNA from the specimen and mix it with chemicals before putting it into the machine for testing. Ferguson says all of this is done as workers try to avoid becoming infected themselves.
FERGUSON: Not only do I need staffing to do the testing, but I need staffing to prepare the specimen collection kits to enter all the data that comes in - the patient information - into our computer laboratory information system. I mean, you need literally a team.
SCHECK: But labs aren't just dealing with a staffing crunch. Some are gone altogether. Since 2008, 12 local and regional labs have closed in California, Florida, Michigan and Georgia. Those cuts came despite warnings from federal watchdogs that lab capacity was maxed out.
FRANCES POUCH DOWNES: We continue to go from crisis to crisis with public health funding.
SCHECK: Frances Pouch Downes is a professor at Michigan State University and former director of Michigan's state lab. She says the government rushes billions of dollars to labs whenever there's a health emergency only to again cut funding when the crisis abates.
POUCH DOWNES: It doesn't work for law enforcement. It doesn't work for the military. Why do we think it's going to work for public health?
SCHECK: Now the nation is looking to the public health system to help with efforts to ease restrictions on social distancing to help the country reopen. But years of cuts to labs and public health departments could hold back that effort. Adriane Casalotti with the National Association of County and City Health Officials says that's a real problem.
ADRIANE CASALOTTI: So that means you have fewer people trying to do the work. And this response is one where we need more than we probably ever needed before.
SCHECK: Back in Alaska, at least one lab employee won't be continuing his work once the pandemic is over. Bernard Jilly says he delayed his March retirement to continue managing his lab throughout the crisis. For NPR News, I'm Tom Scheck.
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