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U.S. to offer 'surge' coronavirus testing to help with shortages, ease delays in results

Temporary sites will be in Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
Image: U.S. Struggles With Coronavirus Amid A Surge Of New Cases
People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing center in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday.Sergio Flores / Getty Images

Federal health officials are creating temporary "surge testing" spots to help control the spread of the coronavirus and ease hospitalizations in Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

As the COVID-19 epidemic shows no signs of slowing, there are many reports in hard-hit states of long lines for diagnostic coronavirus testing and significant delays in getting results.

The goal is to help perform 5,000 tests daily in each city at no cost for people who believe they may have been exposed, whether they are showing symptom or not.

"We want the results as quickly as possible," Dr. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health and human services who oversees U.S. coronavirus testing, said at a briefing Tuesday. Turnaround time for the surge testing should be 48 hours once tests reach the lab, Giroir said. Patients should get results in four to five days.

The federal program won't replace other state and local sites, but it will help boost testing in cities with high rates of new cases and help diagnose people who are asymptomatic. It's estimated that the sites will be in Jacksonville, Florida; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Edinburg, Texas, for five to 12 days.

"The three jurisdictions identified are seeing significant increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and could potentially benefit from additional opportunities to identify new cases, especially for people who are asymptomatic," the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Giroir said on the call that the areas were chosen after a very "complex analysis" by the White House's coronavirus coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, and her team to identify regions that meet their criteria for where surge testing would be most helpful. The selected cities are medium-size and have infrastructures for testing.

Sites in Baton Rouge began testing Tuesday. Sites in Jacksonville and Edinburg will be open Wednesday.

Giroir said that the federal government may help states develop their own surge testing sites and that he's open to handing the federal sites over to the states to manage after the 12 days are over.

Giroir said that overall, states around the country have performed about 16.5 million tests in June, exceeding a goal of 12.9 million tests.

Giroir said turnaround time for a diagnostic test is three to four days in 24 states. In Montana and Washington, D.C., test results average four to five days. "The rest of the states are between two and three days," he said.

Even with temporary help for states dealing with spikes in new cases, "we cannot test our way out of this," Giroir said.

Personal responsibility is as important as testing to control the spread of the virus, Giroir said.

"The most critical factor is going to be personal discipline," he said Tuesday. "Wear a mask. Physical distancing. Shield the vulnerable of any age."