Local Governments Race To Administer Coronavirus Tests, Secure Supplies

Mar 29, 2020
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We are living in historic times. The great pandemic of 2020 has crippled the global economy, shut down life as we knew it and overwhelmed what was always touted as a sophisticated and modern health care system in the United States. The federal government under the Trump administration delayed the rollout of testing due to mismanagement and mistakes. So now it's falling to local governments around the country to test people for the coronavirus and to get enough protective equipment, or PPEs, to hospitals - that means mayors and council members, people who may have never experienced anything like this crisis.

NPR's Rebecca Hersher and Leila Fadel have been talking to local officials about what that's like and how it is or isn't working. And they're both with us now.

Becky, I'm going to start with you and New York City. It is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., and the CDC has just asked people from the area to avoid traveling for two weeks. How is the local government there handling the enormous task of making sure hospitals can handle all the patients coming in?

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: It's been really hard, honestly. You know, there's really been extensive spread of the virus in New York City, so much so that the CDC is now urging average citizens who live in New York City, in New Jersey and Connecticut to not travel outside that area for two weeks even if they feel healthy because they may have been exposed.

And the pandemic - it's putting a lot of pressure on the city government. There's one example that really stands out to me - this doctor named Mary Foote. Her job with the New York City Health Department is to help hospitals prepare for outbreaks of infectious diseases. Like, she has literally spent the last five years only thinking about this topic.

And yet this pandemic hit New York City so hard, so fast that it brought up issues she has never encountered. Like, she said she really pays attention to other disease outbreaks in recent years. She studied the SARS outbreak back in 2009, 2010. She studied MERS more recently. And here's what she told me.

MARY FOOTE: The PPE - I mean, who would've predicted that? You know, I've studied a lot about, you know, the SARS and MERS outbreak and trying to pull out best practices, you know, over the last several years to help people prepare, whereas now, I mean, we're just having to, I mean, go in a whole different direction of thinking and risk mitigation when you're talking about, like, do you always wear a mask? How do you reuse a mask safely without self-contaminating? I mean, this is, like, a whole nother (ph) level.

HERSHER: And so even with all her training, she's looking to other experts outside city government, trying to piece together guidance for hospitals that she supports.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what does that actually mean for hospitals, though? Are we confident they're getting what they need from the local government at this time?

HERSHER: It really depends. On one hand, I've talked to clinicians and pathologists who say they are not getting the supplies they need. They need more help than city government - getting things like testing equipment, for example.

But a lot of medical workers have also said that they're constantly in contact with the city health department, the mayor's office, trying to figure out how to handle this unprecedented wave of patients because there are a million questions that come up when you're dealing with a pandemic. And a lot of those questions - they end up on Mary Foote's plate. Like, she said she's having endless calls with ICU directors, with hospital associations, with hospital epidemiologists. She's answering questions like...

FOOTE: You know, how you can approach things and resource shortages for your PPE. How do you appropriately clean and disinfect? It's starting to feel like everybody in New York has my phone number now. So yeah, it's a lot.

HERSHER: So she and her colleagues - they're basically working 24/7. And you can imagine - if she feels like she's been thrust into the middle of something she's barely prepared for, you can just imagine how it feels for local officials who don't spend all their time, usually, thinking about infectious diseases on a normal day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's bring in NPR's Leila Fadel so we can take a look at Los Angeles.

Mary Foote in New York has been preparing for this her whole career. But I take it you spoke to a local councilman in LA who's only recently had to become a pandemic expert.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Right - well, sort of. I spoke to David Ryu. He represents District 4 of Los Angeles. That's about 275,000 residents in a city of 4 million. And so typically, his job is to represent his district. So he says what he thought he'd maybe be doing in a pandemic like this was figuring out how to protect people from evictions. But this, he says, is what he's actually doing.

DAVID RYU: I never thought that I would be negotiating international agreements for lifesaving products, and I never thought that I would be calling on manufacturers to repurpose their production lines.

FADEL: So he negotiated a $1.25 million deal with Seegene, a South Korean company, to bring in 20,000 tests to LA County that began Friday so that the city can understand the scope of infections among the millions of people who live here. And he's doing it, he says, because the federal government has failed to come through to provide testing and, really, a national policy on this pandemic.

RYU: We are like a nation city. We would loved to work in partnership with all other governmental levels and jurisdictions. But you know, this is a pandemic. Every day that passes, it's growing exponentially. And I can't wait on the federal government to come and fix this. We're going to step up and fix it ourselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let me understand this. He's negotiating deals. Other cities are negotiating deals. Doesn't this just then pit cities and states against each other in the open market?

FADEL: Yeah. So this is a huge concern, something that Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York has said, urging the president to use the Defense Production Act to make these supplies, something the president finally said he would do on Friday, but only after waffling on the subject for at least a week. The Louisiana governor, John Bel Edwards, also dealing with an outbreak, has said that his state just can't compete with more resourced states like New York.

And here in California, they're turning to wealthy benefactors. They've received donations like ventilators from Tesla's Elon Musk and masks from Apple's Tim Cook - things that smaller cities and states are likely not getting. And the councilman I spoke to, David Ryu, said this.

RYU: Every state, every city throughout the nation - we're all fighting for it. So case in point, normally, this kind of coronavirus test - it's roughly about $52 per test. But because of the supply chain bottlenecks, a dollar swab is now $10. The plastic trays where you put the swab in, which might've been at 10 cents, is now going for a dollar. I mean, every part of the supply chain has been hijacked.

FADEL: And he says basically, Los Angeles has given up looking to the east to Washington D.C. for help, and they're actually turning west - turning to South Korea in this case.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's extraordinary. That's NPR's Leila Fadel reporting on the situation in Los Angeles.

Leila, thank you.

FADEL: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Rebecca Hersher brought us the scene in New York City.

Becky, thank you very much.

HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.