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Virginia Denied 300,000 FEMA Swabs As Testing Lags

(Photo Credit: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)
Virginia officials initially requested 500,000 swabs from FEMA. That order was canceled, and officials had to resubmit an order for 200,000 swabs on April 20. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Six weeks after Virginia first requested medical swabs necessary for COVID-19 testing, the first shipments finally arrived last week. But it’s still only a fraction of what the state originally ordered.

As of last Friday, a total of 29,000 swabs across two separate shipments have been received from FEMA. The first 14,000 swabs were received Monday at Virginia’s state lab, the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, and another FEMA shipment of 15,000 was also received last week.

Virginia’s Department of Health initially requested 500,000 test swabs from the federal government on March 17, five days  after Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency due to growing concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus disease. VPM received a copy of the order through a Freedom of Information Act request. At that time, Virginia’s state lab had fewer than 400 swabs in stock, according to the spokesperson for the Department of General Services, the agency that oversees the state lab.

A shortage of swabs, used to collect samples during a COVID-19 test, has been preventing expanded testing not only at the state lab, but also in university labs. Meanwhile, Virginia’s testing capacity has ranked among the lowest compared to other states. And while the state expects localities and private labs to source their own supplies, the state lab serves as a backstop to make sure they don’t run out. 

Dr. Jeff Stern, state coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, says while they’re working to source swabs from private companies, it’s been hard to find them.

“We placed an order three or four weeks ago for 100,000 swabs, and the distributor -- after placing that order -- came back and said they didn’t have them,” Stern explained.

That’s left a lot of pressure on orders from FEMA to come through. According to documents VPM received through the Freedom of Information Act Thursday, VDH had only received a total of 39,000 swabs since the beginning of the year, including the state’s first FEMA shipment.

James Moss, state planning coordinator with VDH’s office of emergency preparedness, placed the initial order with the federal government, through the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. He says the decision to request 500,000 was a recommendation from state officials “based on models at the time and the number of swabs we estimated needing to increase our capabilities.”

“So we put in that request, hoping that we would get them sooner rather than later, realizing that everyone in the country is looking for the same everything, either PPE [personal protective equipment] or swabs or the testing media or whatever the case may be,” Moss told VPM.

But, according to documents and emails obtained by VPM, FEMA canceled that initial request. A member of FEMA’s regional team, Brian Russell, wrote in an email sent to Virginia officials on April 8 that he “was informed this morning that FEMA HQ is canceling any [requests] asking for nasal swabs of over 14,000 per week for each state.”

The email from Russell went on to say that FEMA HQ had “adjusted the request to 200,000 which complies with the 14,000 per week justification.”

Moss told VPM state officials were “advised that we needed to provide what the weekly rate of use could be,” to FEMA which is how the 14,000 figure was calculated.

Twelve days later on April 20, state officials submitted a modified order for 200,000 swabs. That request was received, but FEMA could not provide an estimated delivery time because the agency was still sourcing the supplies.

“Before we merged the systems together, the first request went in from them [VDH] to [federal] health and human services for swabs,” Stern told VPM in an interview Saturday. “There just weren't swabs available. And so as swabs came into the marketplace, and FEMA was able to get them, or anybody in the federal government, they began to apportion out what they could fill.”

It’s not clear exactly why – and for which states - FEMA has delayed, and is currently still rationing the shipment of swabs. VPM reached Russell by phone Friday afternoon, but said he could not comment and forwarded inquiries to the FEMA press office. VPM is still waiting on a response from FEMA. According to VDEM’s Stern, FEMA has embedded staff like Russell in on-the-ground operations in Virginia through the federal FIT program.

“We have regular communications, daily communications, essentially, with FEMA, that they're trying to give us visibility into what they have,” Stern said.

Virginia has lagged behind most other states when it comes to testing rates. Moss told VPM that he assumed part of the reason for the delay was federal prioritization of swabs to states with more COVID-19 outbreaks than Virginia. That’s an assumption shared by Stern.

“I would presume that Washington state and New York were the essential focus,” Stern told VPM. “I can't be critical, I think they [FEMA] are trying in a very resource-constrained environment to enhance and develop supply chains and as stuff is acquired, whether it be overseas or is made here in the US, a portion of that through a resource allocation process.”

According to Stern, Virginia is expected to receive 235,000 swabs this month from the federal government, as well as 176,000 vials of viral media, liquid solution used to transport swab samples in. Stern says that information was relayed on a Friday call with the White House about a national plan to get more testing supplies to all 50 states based on a per capita proportional model.

The 29,000 swabs received from FEMA so far were sent to the state lab. Stern expects they’ll also be asked to provide additional swabs to university labs, as they’ve been distributing PPE.

“Our role at the state level is to be a backstop to the localities and the hospital systems that can't get it on the open market themselves,” Stern said. “We always ask them to do it first. We're not the first provider but we're the backup provider.”

He estimates they’ve received 600-700 requests from local governments for PPE and other supplies, and while VDEM has been unable to fill all requests, they’ve tried to fulfill partial orders to ensure nobody runs out.

“The first few weeks were very much trying to get PPE ordered. We're still trying to order PPE for the duration of this event. This will go on for four months and into next year. The market is very stabilized,” Stern said. “And now, the big push is to get the testing materials, the swabs, the viral media. Put those together, they become test kits. And we know that there'll be a lot of other needs, as we foresee going forward into the next few weeks and months.”

Stern says they’ve been working over the last few weeks to order “literally millions of pieces of PPE.” He says about twelve tractor-trailers worth of N95 masks, gloves gowns is expected to arrive at Dulles International Airport this week. According to Stern, Norfolk-based company Northfield is having its Chinese distributor fly the supplies to Virginia, the second in three shipments from Northfield. The supplies will then be loaded into trucks and driven to Richmond.

In two weeks, Stern says he expects another 2 million N95 masks to be delivered from a supplier of the Virginia-based company Dollar Tree.

Meanwhile, state officials say they’ve been expanding testing capacity with the goal of testing 10,000 people every day. On Friday Dr. Karen Remley, who’s been heading the state’s testing task force, announced new contracts with two Virginia labs and one North Carolina-based lab to further expand testing capacity. Remley said these labs will help the state test an additional 3,000 people a day. According to Stern, the companies are Mako Medical Laboratories, Genetworx, and Next Molecular Analytics. VPM has requested copies of these contracts from VDH through FOIA.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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