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.)