CDC opens up coronavirus testing, Pence says

The agency previously advised doctors to only test patients if they had known exposure to someone with the virus, travel history to an affected region or had symptoms of a serious respiratory illness.

The Trump administration in recent days has faced criticism for delays in testing because of earlier problems with its diagnostic tests. Pence said the U.S. plans to send 2,500 new test kits out by the end of the week, which he claimed can test 1.5 million samples. Public health labs say patients typically require at least two samples.

Pence also said private companies are expected to dramatically boost the amount of test kits on the market, though experts question whether there are enough laboratories to test a large surge of samples.

As of Tuesday, officials have confirmed 77 cases in the U.S. across 13 states and nine deaths, all reported in Washington state.

Seven of those deaths involved patients from a nursing home near Seattle. Pence said he spoke with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee earlier Tuesday. A CDC team is on the ground in Washington, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has deployed investigators to the nursing home.

President Donald Trump and Pence visited the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday to discuss treatments and the development of a vaccine, which agency Director Anthony Fauci said won’t likely be ready until next year.

Officials reiterated that the immediate risk to the American public remains low, though cautioned that could quickly change.

“The big unknown that I think we’re going to be able to address as we get much more widespread ability to test is the degree of infection that might be out there,” Fauci said.

Concerns of broader community spread come just as a $7.5 billion emergency funding package for coronavirus response efforts stalled on Capitol Hill Tuesday over disagreements about vaccine availability and hospital reimbursement costs. State and local health departments, already strapped for cash, say they need funding to prepare especially in the event that the virus becomes widespread in their communities.

Joining Pence at the briefing — which was not televised — were members of the coronavirus task force including Deborah Birx, who is leading the response; CMS Administrator Seema Verma; CDC Director Robert Redfield; and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

Pence said he plans to meet Wednesday with airline industry executives to discuss “contact tracing data” and greater cooperation among the airports tasked with screening people coming back into the United States.

David Lim contributed to this report.