WASHINGTON — On March 13, the chief executives of CVS, Walgreens and Walmart stood by in the Rose Garden as President Trump described how he would enlist the retail and pharmacy outlets they operated across the nation to “vastly increase and accelerate our capacity to test for the coronavirus.”
After weeks of minimizing the coronavirus threat, Trump was finally taking it seriously. He used the March 13 address to declare a national emergency. And he described public-private efforts that would rapidly increase the number of Americans tested for the coronavirus, which causes a potentially fatal lower respiratory disease called COVID-19. That disease has killed more than 2,400 in the U.S., according to the latest statistics from a Johns Hopkins University database.
Testing had been slow to that point, but Trump signaled that was about to change. The leaders of the pharmacy and retail giants standing next to him appeared to be flesh-and-blood evidence of that redoubled effort.
“We’ve been in discussions with pharmacies and retailers to make drive-through tests available in the critical locations identified by public health professionals,” Trump said. He also described separate efforts to produce and distribute coronavirus testing kits.
Since then, Americans have been tested for the coronavirus at a much faster pace than they had been in the first half of March. Although the president has misrepresented just how aggressive and comprehensive his testing regime has been, there are encouraging indications that at least some of the initial challenges have been overcome.
But the promise of testing at local pharmacies, which Trump implied was at hand on a large scale, remains unrealized. Of the nation’s 67,000 pharmacies, only five sites currently have the capacity to test for the coronavirus through what an official called the Community-Based Testing Site program, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. If other pharmacies are testing, neither the federal government nor people in the pharmacy industry are aware of the effort.
The evident disconnect between Trump’s promise and on-the-ground reality is reflected in a sign that, according to a company representative, has been placed at every Target around the nation (Target’s pharmacies are operated by CVS): “This store is NOT a CDC testing center,” the signs say, using the acronym for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Above the message is Target’s logo, a red bull’s-eye. There is no other information.
The disconcerting message has caused inevitable befuddlement from Delaware to Texas. “I was surprised that I saw the sign,” said Jaipreet Virdi, a historian of medicine at the University of Delaware. She said she “wondered if [she] had missed crucial information regarding testing in Delaware.”
It was not clear how other pharmacy chains were handling the testing confusion. At a CVS on Wisconsin Avenue in the upper northwest corner of Washington, D.C. — just a few miles north of the White House and not far south of the National Institutes of Health — a sign said that “testing is NOT currently available at this location.”
The sign additionally said that “No testing will be available inside any CVS pharmacy or drive thru location.” For more information, customers were directed to the CDC’s website.
A White House official told Yahoo News that the Trump administration is “currently in discussions with these private companies and others to expand the number of testing sites in a way that reduces PPE requirements and improves the patient experience.” (“PPE” is an acronym for “personal protective equipment” such as respirator masks; protective equipment is necessary for medical professionals to keep from becoming infected while testing for the quick-moving pathogen.)
“The partnerships President Trump forged with these companies to increase testing capacity,” the official said, “are part of a larger network of locally executed, state-managed and federally supported testing sites across the country.”
A spokesman for CVS told Yahoo News that it has one testing site, in Shrewsbury, Mass., that is “presently testing more than 200 local first responders and health care workers per day.” He added that the company has “no plans to share at this time” about other sites, though such discussions are apparently taking place. (CVS bought 1,672 pharmacies inside Target stores in 2015.)
Walgreens has opened a single site in Chicago, which according to a press release is intended for first responders and the elderly. That site “will not be available to the general public,” the press release says.
Rite Aid, which did not respond to a Yahoo News request for comment, has opened a testing site in Philadelphia. The site is intended to “only serve first responders and health care workers,” according to news reports.
“We don’t have a lot to share,” a representative for Walmart told Yahoo News. She pointed to an interview that Walmart corporate affairs vice president Dan Bartlett gave to Yahoo Finance last week. In that interview, Bartlett said that Walmart was operating “a couple of sites in the Chicagoland area,” a reference to Chicago and the heavily populated Cook County inner-ring suburbs. The number of coronavirus infections there has been growing.
“We are now assessing where those next sites should be,” Bartlett told Yahoo Finance.
Bartlett also offered one explanation for why pharmacies have so few testing sites, despite being enlisted in the coronavirus battle by the president two weeks ago. “We are not immune from the other issues that everybody’s facing,” Bartlett told Yahoo Finance, “which is PPE — protective equipment — those types of supplies, the kits, the tests themselves.”
One pharmacy executive who would speak frankly only if granted anonymity said that the scarcity of resources meant that it was simply impossible to supply both private pharmacies and public laboratories run by states, where testing began about a month ago.
Scott Becker, the chief executive officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, denied any suggestions that state laboratories represented by his group had tried to lay claim to coronavirus-related resources, but he did acknowledge that scarcity was a problem. “Public health labs are competing for many of the same supplies as are other laboratories in the clinical sector,” Becker told Yahoo News. “There is no evidence of public health ‘jumping the line,’ as we are in the same position as all other labs.”
Mia Palmieri Heck, the director of external affairs for the Department of Health and Human Services, told Yahoo News that as “the public-private partnership expands, HHS will continue to work with partners to make testing more accessible.”
Details of such an expansion were not immediately available.
Independent pharmacies also want to participate in coronavirus testing, says Jack Mozloom, a vice president at the National Community Pharmacists Association. Mozloom says that his group represents 21,000 pharmacies around the nation, and that many of those pharmacies are in rural areas and urban neighborhoods where chains like CVS haven’t set up shop.
“Our members very much want to do testing for this disease,” Mozloom says. But he says that as far as he knows, none of those member pharmacies are testing for the coronavirus.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.