More than six weeks have passed since Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan trumpeted the purchase of 500,000 coronavirus tests from a South Korean company, and it’s still not clear whether any of them have actually been used.
Hogan touted the $9 million purchase as an example of his team’s determination and creativity to source badly needed tests in the face of little help from the federal government. The tests were flown secretively into BWI Marshall Airport on a passenger plane, and Hogan boasted that they were whisked to a secret location under guard.
For weeks, state lawmakers and others asked about the fate of the tests, which Hogan acknowledged couldn’t be used right away because they lacked needed supplies such as swabs and reagents.
Now Hogan’s team says the 500,000 tests from Lab Genomics will be used at a University of Maryland lab that’s been set up in Baltimore as part of the state’s long-term testing strategy. Officials still won’t say how many, if any, have been used so far.
“This lab will be the backbone of our sustained, long-term testing strategy,” Hogan said Wednesday. “Many experts are predicting a second wave or a surge this fall. ... We are, and will be, much better positioned for that than almost any other state, and our strategic stockpile of tests and our successful, long-term testing strategy will ensure that we have a strong and fully functioning supply of tests until such time as there is a vaccine.”
In an online briefing with lawmakers Wednesday, Deputy Health Secretary Fran Phillips did not answer questions about why the tests have not been used widely, though she said the state now has all of the supplies needed to make them work. She said the tests themselves have been “validated,” meaning they are accurate.
“The tests are a step toward self-sufficiency,” Phillips told lawmakers. “For now, we have the ability to rely on out-of-state labs. As we look forward to the fall, these will be part of our long-term strategy.”
Phillips said the tests and the new lab will be used “judiciously” to deal with what may be a “rocky period” in the fall.
Some lawmakers felt the governor pulled a bait-and-switch with the tests.
“Why did they use emergency procurement to obtain tests if they were part of a long-term strategy and not going to be used right away?” asked Sen. Clarence Lam, a doctor and Howard County Democrat who has repeatedly pressed for information about the tests. “That’s not what emergency procurement is for. It doesn’t make sense.”
Sen. Paul Pinsky was among lawmakers who grilled a top Hogan administration official one week earlier hopes of getting answers about the tests, to no avail.
“They’ve been less than forthcoming,” said Pinsky, a Prince George’s Democrat. “They’ve been holding big announcements without any follow-through. We’ve asked how many of the Korean tests have been utilized. Clearly, it’s been a house of cards.”
When Hogan announced the purchase of the tests to national acclaim on April 20, he did acknowledge — in response to a question from The Baltimore Sun — that they couldn’t be rolled out right away.
“They don’t have everything that’s needed. It’s a very complex set of things that goes into the testing,” Hogan said at the time. “You need the lab capability, you need the swabs, you need the reagents, and they all have to kind of work together. ... It’s going to take a while to ramp up all of the things that we need to utilize all of the tests.”
Over the next several weeks, Hogan and his team would not answer questions about whether they were getting the supplies and if the tests were deployed.
“They’re not answering questions,” said Del. Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat who has written to the governor and raised questions on social media. “They’re been very deceptive about whether these tests are being used. If you don’t have swabs, you don’t have reagents, what exactly did we buy? Did we buy a bunch of junk and they’re afraid to announce they wasted $9 million?”
The purchase of the South Korean tests still has not been approved by the Maryland Board of Public Works, which reviews state spending. Board members said they needed more documentation about dozens of emergency contracts before signing off on them, and asked for details to be provided at the next meeting later this month.
The questions about the tests come as the availability and accessibility of testing has improved in recent weeks. More than 10,000 tests per day are now being conducted in Maryland, a combination of tests run by the state, local governments and private health care providers.
The state is now allowing people to get tests even if they have no symptoms and without a doctor’s note, making it easier for people to be tested. Hogan also issued an order allowing pharmacists to conduct tests, and several pharmacy chains have set up testing operations.
Reaching 10,000 tests per day was a key goal of Hogan’s as a precursor to relaxing some of the restrictions that had been put into place to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
As testing has expanded, the rate of positive tests has gone down from over 20% to less than 10%.
That positivity rate is a metric public health experts use to determine whether there is sufficient testing. Johns Hopkins University tracks positivity rates and compares them to a World Health Organization standard of 5% for reopening. The Hogan administration has cited a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that states have positivity rates of less than 15% for two weeks before taking further reopening steps.