The Maine Center for Disease Control says it has received only a small fraction of its order for a new rapid test for COVID-19. The shortfall presents a new challenge for public health officials who had hoped to expand testing capacity for at-risk people and conserve personal protective equipment for health care workers.
Last week, during one of the daily briefings on the COVID-19 outbreak, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said he was hopeful that the new tests from Abbott Labs could be deployed quickly and help allay one of his biggest concerns about Maine's readiness.
"A rapid diagnostic test, in and of itself, is a PPE conservation strategy," Shah said last week.
PPE stands for personal protective equipment, which is worn by health care workers in caring for patients infected with COVID-19. It's also worn by those who test people suspected of having the disease.
"They have to do what's reasonable, which is assume that the patient might be positive and take the necessary PPE precautions as a result of that," Shah said.
In other words, more tests with faster results could reduce the demand for PPE, which is in critically short supply in Maine and across the country.
Shah has described Maine's meager allocation from the federal government as an “umbrella in a hurricane.” And Wednesday he announced that the anticipated delivery of Abbott's rapid tests isn't providing much additional shelter.
"Initially we thought we were going to be receiving a higher number," Shah said. "Unfortunately, the allocation that we received was much smaller than that."
By much smaller, Shah meant less than five percent of the testing capacity that Maine officials had been expecting. Shah said he had hoped Maine would receive 15 Abbott testing machines and enough cartridges to produce 2,400 tests, increasing the state’s current capacity by roughly six-fold. Instead, Maine received enough cartridges for about 115 tests, according to an agency spokesperson.
The new technology has garnered much national attention in recent weeks.
"On Friday the FDA authorized a new test developed by Abbott Labs that delivers lightning-fast results in as little as five minutes. That's a whole new ballgame," President Donald Trump announced in the White House Rose Garden in March.
Since that announcement, the company's stock price has jumped by more than 26 percent.
The company distributed a video to the news media featuring John Hackett, the company's regional vice president of research and development, who highlighted one machine's ability to perform hundreds of tests in one day.
"So this provides an opportunity to get reliable results in a relatively short period of time. And again, this is critical to containing the ongoing spread of this virus," Hackett said.
John Koval, a spokesperson for Abbott, said in a statement that the delivery to Maine was an initial shipment, and that the state should receive more tests later this month from the U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services.
Koval said the company, which has a facility in Scarborough, is producing 50,000 tests per day, and it's prioritizing delivery to areas of the country that are considered hotspots.
Last week Kaiser Health News reported that, based on internal documents, the Department was distributing far fewer tests than originally planned and diverting some to the Strategic National Stockpile, which the states have also been tapping for personal protective equipment.
A spokesperson for the Maine CDC said the disconnect about the anticipated size of rapid test shipment originated with information from the federal government. He said the agency will continue to work directly with Abbott Labs to obtain more equipment.
In the meantime, Shah says the state will have to revise its testing strategy.
"The fact that we got much, much less than we initially thought and were told we would be getting ... we're going back to the drawing board today to get a better sense of what the best strategy for those machines will be," Shah said.