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U.S. needs to ensure underserved minorities have 'equitable access' to coronavirus testing, HHS official says

Assistant Secretary for Health admiral Brett Giroir speaks as US President Donald Trump listens during a news conference on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on April 27, 2020.

The U.S. needs to ramp up coronavirus testing to ensure everyone has "equitable access," especially in underserved minority communities, the government's top testing official said Thursday.

Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services who is running the government's testing response, said data shows black Americans have been disproportionately hit hard by the pandemic.

HHS will now require laboratories to report the age, race, ethnicity, sex, zip code and type of test performed on patients when reporting data to state and local health departments, he told reporters on a conference call. He said labs will have 24 hours to report that data, which local health officials then send to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a daily basis.

"This is only one small component of my office's efforts to combat health disparities that have plagued our nation for decades, but it is an important foundational component related to Covid-19 that we will continue to build on in the future," Giroir said. He added that it's "critical" to the country's Covid-19 response that underserved communities receive testing and proper follow-up care.

The new reporting requirements will help the federal government understand how Covid-19 has impacted different communities, he said, and allow the federal government to target its response to particularly hard hit areas. CDC data has shown that black Americans have accounted for a disproportionate share of Covid-19 fatalities, but the data is incomplete because many local health officials don't report race and other demographic data.

"You look at the African-Americans hospitalization rate and mortality rate being 3, 4, 6 times that of white Americans, depending on the studies that you read and really understanding who's being tested, the results of those tested and the demographics are just critical to our public health response," he said. "We take this deadly seriously."

Giroir began the call by expressing "personal sadness" over the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, who was killed after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd's death ignited mass protests across the country over police brutality and systemic racism throughout America. 

"As public health officials, we cannot be silent," he said on the call. "We must and will continue to acknowledge and address the racial disparities faced by minority communities."

About 12 million coronavirus tests were processed in the U.S. in May, Giroir said, calling it a "tremendous success" even though it falls short of the 12.9 million tests officials had hoped to run for the month. Most states have met their targets as well as goals set by the federal government, Giroir said. Some states have lagged, he admitted, without identifying which ones. 

U.S. labs are currently running between 400,000 and 500,000 tests per day, he said, adding that capacity is "steadily" increasing. That figure falls far short of what some public health specialists and economists have called for. Harvard University published a report in April that said the U.S. would need to ramp up testing capacity to at least 5 million tests a day by early June, and 20 million per day by late July, in order to reopen the economy.

Giroir previously characterized that assessment as "an Ivory Tower, unreasonable benchmark."

The U.S. has struggled to increase its testing capabilities since the very beginning of the outbreak. Early missteps at the CDC caused the agency to distribute faulty test kits to local health officials. CDC officials also set stringent requirements for testing that prevented clinicians from diagnosing some of the first patients.

Shortages in supplies of the materials needed to process tests, such as nasal swabs for sample collection and chemicals needed to analyze results, have also handicapped the country's ability to test people who don't yet have symptoms. 

Giroir said he believes the U.S. currently has enough testing materials to start testing asymptomatic people, but added that state and local officials will determine who's eligible to get tested.