Arizona Clinic Grapples With High Demand For COVID-19 Tests : Coronavirus Live Updates Coronavirus testing in the U.S. has not kept up with demand. NPR's Noel King talks to Raymond Embry, who runs one of the largest coronavirus testing sites in Arizona, about why that is.
NPR logo

Arizona Clinic Grapples With High Demand For COVID-19 Tests

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/891757628/891760462" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Arizona Clinic Grapples With High Demand For COVID-19 Tests

Arizona Clinic Grapples With High Demand For COVID-19 Tests

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/891757628/891760462" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NOEL KING, HOST:

We are about to reach 3 1/2 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. That's according to a database at Johns Hopkins. Hospitals in Texas, Florida and Arizona are filling up. The key to stopping the virus is rapid widespread testing. We know that. But testing hasn't kept up in some states, including Arizona, now a hotspot. Adult ICU beds there are at 90% capacity. So state health officials say they are setting up testing sites that will be able to test 5,000 people a day. They're promising people will get their results in 48 hours. When Raymond Embry heard this, he was very surprised. He runs one of Arizona's biggest testing sites. The clinic has been giving free tests to thousands of people in Mesa outside of Phoenix. And he told me there's been very little support from the state since his clinic started doing tests in March.

RAYMOND EMBRY: It honestly enrages me to see, you know, that essentially with the snap of a finger, the Arizona Department of Health Services, Governor Ducey's office and FEMA are just able to immediately acquire the supplies, materials and lab capacity to open two sites starting on Friday that are going to be able to accommodate 5,000 patients per day with a reported turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours.

Now, that's not to say that that community doesn't desperately need that testing. They absolutely do. But where are all of those materials coming from? Because I've been told absolutely unequivocally that there is no additional personal protective equipment or supplies available at the state or county level, so where is it coming from?

KING: Embry is the business manager of Embry Women's Health. It was an obstetrics and gynecology clinic. In March, though, it pivoted to COVID testing when the seriousness of the virus became too hard to ignore. In May, they took part in something the state was doing called testing blitz Saturday. The idea was to get as many people tested at once as possible.

EMBRY: With all four of those Saturdays combined, we tested over 4,000 people, but we had a very small percentage of positive cases.

KING: Embry said less than 50 of those tests came back positive. But then everything changed.

EMBRY: What happened in early June is that in a single night of testing 200 people, we had more people come back positive in that single night's worth of testing than we did with all four of those Saturdays combined.

KING: May I ask what went through your head when you saw that happen?

EMBRY: I'm not going to travel in July (laughter).

KING: Oh, dear.

EMBRY: Sorry. No, I mean, obviously I was horrified. But before that, I thought our COVID-19 testing operation was going to be put out of business. And that would have been a good thing. This probably would have been the first time that a business closure would have been a good thing because that means that we were no longer needed. And when I saw that it really, you know, was, oh, my God, nobody's prepared for this. There's no way that we're going to stop testing for COVID-19. There's no way that drive-through pharmacies are going to be enough to be able to test like we're going to need to. And, you know, we need to take immediate action to figure out where we can start testing people en masse.

KING: It does sound like your staff must be exhausted.

EMBRY: Yes, they definitely are exhausted. And every time I go to the site, you know, and I'm looking into their faces, I mean, the only reason they're there I think is because they really want to help the community and help stop the spread of the virus. But, you know, I really do wonder how, you know, how they're doing it. I mean, it's 115, 118 degrees outside or it probably feels like it. And, you know, on a blacktop parking surface, it definitely does not make things any easier. If you've ever heard the rumors about where you can crack an egg on a parking lot in Arizona and watch it fry, that's essentially what our employees and our providers are working on on a daily basis.

KING: Have you been getting any help from government, from state officials?

EMBRY: For the most part, no, we have not received any local, county, state or federal support other than the Arizona National Guard. And the Arizona National Guard has been a fantastic partner. You know, their soldiers are out there on a daily basis as well right alongside our providers and our administrative staff. However, other than the Arizona National Guard, we have received no support whatsoever.

KING: Let me ask you about something that we've been hearing about from across the country, and it sounds like some places are doing better than others - delays in results from the tests. It sounds like you have mechanized this, in a way, to a point where it is fairly easy to get people tested quickly. Are the lab results then turned around quickly? How long do people have to wait to get results back?

EMBRY: Unfortunately, no, the lab results are not turned around quickly. That is definitely, you know, one of the things that keeps me up at night. You know, sometimes I ask myself and we ask each other, what is the point of testing people if it takes five to seven business days for results to come back, especially for asymptomatic individuals? You know, nobody is just sitting at home. So how many other people have they interacted with and now they found out that they're positive?

And that actually brings up another part of our operation, which is there's not enough swabs and vials. I think I had a mini-anxiety attack last night because, you know, on Monday we exceeded 4,000 patients being tested in a single day, yet I only have enough inventory coming in of swabs and vials for 2,000 patients on a daily basis. And thankfully we've had our own reserves that are quickly being depleted. After today, I really don't know where our swabs and vials are going to come from.

KING: I hear anxiety and exhaustion in your voice. When you look forward over the next couple of days and weeks, what is the main thing that's weighing on your mind? What scares you most?

EMBRY: The thing that scares me most, I think, is continuing to open these test sites and commit to these patients that we're going to be able to offer them testing and then, A, not being able to have a lab to send those specimens to because they're going to be so overwhelmed or, B, not having any test kits to actually be able to even collect the specimen from. You know, we're committed to the community. And we're working with sites across the valley to open new test sites. And we are hiring dozens of employees on a daily basis to be able to staff these test sites. But I don't have the personal protective equipment to be able to do it. And I don't have the test kits to be able to do it.

KING: Raymond Embry, thank you so much for your time.

EMBRY: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much for covering these important issues.

KING: Raymond is business manager for Embry Women's Health, running one of Arizona's biggest testing sites in Mesa, Ariz.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.