The rapid testing show

January 14, 2022

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The Planet Money team fans out across the nation with one goal: to get a Covid test in 24 hours. It is easier said than done. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.


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This is planet Money from NPR. Team Planet Money. Hello, thank you for joining me today and thank you for agreeing to this mission. Over the next 24 hours. You will travel to strange locations. You will wait in the cold or the sleet. Maybe worse today. My friends. I want you to go get a covid test. All right. Are you willing and able? Yes, I'm a little scared, but I'll do it.

Okay, good enough. You guys tell tell our listeners where you are.

I'm in santa fe new Mexico. I'm in Portland

Oregon. I'm in chapel Hill north Carolina. Los Angeles, California, Richmond Virginia. I'm in new paltz new york and I'm in new york city. All right. So are there any questions, Is there a preference for test? No, that is a very good question. You can go get an antigen test. You can go get a pcR test whatever test you can find. Is it a race? It is not a race. But you have 24 hours to accomplish this goal and then at the end, I will check back in with you guys.

Is there a way to win? I was just going to ask that is there a way to win. Um, let me think about it and I will get back to you. Okay, team planet money. The 24 hour clock starts in 3, 2


go, go, go, go go. Good luck. Team, Good luck out. There we go. Get Covid tests, Get tested to the testing hunt. Hello and welcome to Planet Money. I'm Amanda rancic. If you've tried to get a covid test lately, you might have noticed it is a journey or at least it can be depending on where you are. Tests might be really easy to get or they might be ungettable. What is behind this mess right now. The government is trying to fix it, but it's not clear if their plans are going to do the trick today on the show. We race around the country looking for tests and see what kinds of problems we run into.

You have a guest commentator along for the ride to explain what is behind the wild ups and downs of trying to get a Covid test. Mm hmm. Alright. I gotta put on my shoes. Walking to my car. I left my house about 15 minutes ago. I stopped and I got a delicious burrito. I don't know if we're going to factor that into our time here. I can't find my car keys. Not a good start. Not a good start. Alright.

We're getting closer. We got some construction on the side. So forgive me for that. This place appears to be next to a pretty sizable chicken coop. They're in my pocket. Oh my God. There it is. There's a tent. I think it says free covid testing on it.

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Usa facts. Was founded in 2017 by steven Connie bomer who really wanted to understand where government was spending money so that they could, they could fill in the gaps and after a couple of years of painstakingly going through government data, we realized it just should not take this long for people to understand the state of their country and numbers

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So here is what we're going to do today. The planet Money team is out doing the not so amazing race to try to get Covid tests, not just for an economic experiment, but also because everyone had reasons to get tested and with the team. So spread out and different cities and states handling testing so differently. We wanted to see it for ourselves. I told everyone to check back with me and with my expert who will help explain any strange things we find. Can you introduce yourself? Sure. My name is dr jay varma and I am the director of the Cornell center for Pandemic prevention and response in new york city. Over the past 20 years, jay has mostly worked for the government trying to stop outbreaks of Ebola or legionnaire's disease or SARS and most recently he helped new york city set up its covid testing program. He says if you are fighting a pandemic, it all starts with testing. People like myself who has spent my career trying to promote the early detection and response to epidemics have spent most of our careers not working on drugs to treat infections or or even necessarily vaccines but trying to figure out who is sick and who is not because that is the first step to everything. Every decision follows testing big ones like when can we open up the economy again and individual ones like can I send my kid to school tomorrow testing leads to more informed decisions around whether the vaccines are working what kinds of medicines we need?

Should we be in lockdown, Can we reopen the border etcetera etcetera? You get it. And right now in the U. S. Testing is not working which starts to become clear with the first call back from the team, caller number one nick Amanda. Hello Nick fountain. Oh my God, it is so sketchy where I am right now. Nick was in Los Angeles trying to figure out if the test he just got was legit. Where are you? So I left my house, I walked 3.5 blocks and I ran across here. I'm going to turn my camera around. Okay, this tent.

Okay. Yeah, yeah. It's a tiny little tent with a sign up that says COVID-19 Delta variant underneath The tent is just one woman who has a hat that says mom's off day and a wine glass. She's right outside an AutoZone parking lot. I got swabbed pretty quickly and then afterwards she liked, I took my little swab and put it in a little vial and put that in a little ziploc bag and then put that ziploc bag into a marshal's reusable shopping bag. Wait a minute nick. You actually did your test at this tent? Oh yeah. So Nick's test seems shady. But then again, he didn't give them any money. Nick, Did you give this random person under a tent, your credit card number or your bank card or key to your crypto? No, it was free.

And interestingly, I was like, hey, I don't have insurance today, whatever. I didn't have my insurance number and she was like, oh, that's fine, don't worry about it. All right. So I brought nick's case to dr jay varma and asked him did Nick just take a legitimate covid test or was he somehow scammed. Well, it's a really interesting question and I think this is probably one of the challenges that everybody is facing. Right. You'll see a sign set up. It's his covid testing and you don't really know whether it's legitimate or not. It's possibly legitimate. Uh You know, I would possibly legitimate. Alright, Alright. Without having seen it, I can't know for sure.

I mean, So here's the thing about testing that that people may not understand and it relates to the kind of economics and and business operations is that there are really two main components of testing. One is who collects your specimen and the second is what lab actually test the specimen itself. J says here is how to look at Nick's test. Nick got a pcr test the kind that has to be processed in a heavily regulated and specialized lab, but it doesn't have to be collected at a lab. And if you're in the middle of a global pandemic, you want to bring the tests to the people. Hence tense. That's why you can get these operations. You know where joe's rapid testing site gets set up where they put up a tent somewhere and they form a contractual relationship with the lab and are collecting specimens and doing it, jay says that the fact that it is a tent with a sign printed at. I don't know, Kinko's doesn't mean that it's not legit when he was helping set up new york city's testing program, they set up hundreds of tents. The tents are really helpful. They make testing convenient. It's easier to set up than a building and you can put tents in neighborhoods that need better access to testing.

But how do we tell if Nick's tent is for real? The one thing that would lead me to believe that this is a government site is the fact that they didn't ask for any insurance information. They also didn't ask for any money. So that seemed like a good sign. The other thing jay suggested we look for was the name of a lab and the name of a doctor. Now the people doing the collection don't have to be physicians themselves, but they're generally has to be some type of what we call authorizing physician. So, you know, one of the questions to ask is, well, who is the physician overseeing this? Who is the medical provider that actually requested the test and that will give you some idea about who set this up and who's running it. Okay. So now I know what to look for. An authorizing physician and the name of a lab. I am going to look into both of these things for Nick and we'll see what kind of follow up he gets on the test, caller.

Number two. Dave Hello. Dave blanchard. How's it going?

Good though. I'm not feeling very confident. I was sort of thinking that this would be an easy task. But it's a total shut out for me so far.

Huh, remind people where you are.

So, I'm in Portland. I've tried going through the Oregon health authority's website and they're all booked out like a week ahead of time. So I've turned to secondary markets and this this sounds questionable when I say it out loud, but I think I'm gonna try to get a covid test off of

Craigslist. But there was one

of those posted about three hours ago. It's COVID-19 home


Brand new unopened result in 10 minutes, two tests in one box prices, firm text for fastest response. It's listed for $50, which is definitely an upcharge from like the pharmacy price, which I think usually around like 20,

So I guess I'm gonna go do this. All right, good luck. Dave text me the word mango if you're worried about

anything. Okay, that sounds good mango.

And I guess I would just say meet the person outside.

Yeah, they've been very

responsive. I'm sure they have. They're about to make some money off you. Dave. Don't worry. I did hear from Dave shortly after this call. There were no panicky mango texts. Even mode. The Stranger. 50 bucks. She gave him a legitimate FDA approved rapid test. I explained Dave's case to dr jay varma Walgreens.

They don't have it. So we ended up buying a test for 50 bucks on craigslist. One of these rapid tests. Yeah, it sounds to me kind of like a like a beanie babies or Xbox type situation around christmas right? Like I guess if I was really in a crunch for cash I would sell the five boxes of tests you know that we keep session our house at all times now while nick got a pcR test. Dave bought a rapid test. These are very different kinds of tests. But no matter what kind of test you get, the prices you can pay are all over the place. You can get them for free or you can pay $489 which is an actual price I saw for a quick turnaround PcR test in Manhattan. I know of laboratories that have you know essentially a V. I. P.

Lane. Right? If you have a private laboratory and a private medical provider as long as you disclose all of the information about the costs up front, I'm not aware that there is any restriction on doing that. J why is this the system that it's such a hodgepodge. Hodgepodge is is probably the polite word to use. That doesn't rhyme with you know pit go for for how you might describe our you know U. S. Healthcare system. Why is testing such a pit go with tests costing such a wide range of prices. Well, first of all it took a while for some of the rapid tests to get approved. So there were very many companies making them Abbott. The company that makes been ax now said they didn't need to lower their prices.

There just wasn't enough competition to bother jay says that the second reason testing is such a pit go can be traced back to a decision that both the trump and biden administration's made. They could have been a major consistent buyer of tests. That's what the government did with the Covid vaccines with operation warp speed. The government promised to buy vaccines and removed a lot of the risk for companies. Well we had an operation warp speed that's kind of the analog that we need really for testing if we want to avoid these types of bottlenecks that we're running into right now without consistent demand. Like from the government testing companies are just following the ebbs and flows of the pandemic. When delta omicron comes on the scene, they scramble to make more when cases fall, they make less but they don't time it perfectly. And that leads to shortages. And like Dave buying a test for $50 which is better than not finding a test at all. Which brings us to our last caller caller number three molly. Hello molly. Hi.

So remind our listeners, where are you right now? I'm in new paltz new york. So about an hour and a half outside of new york city molly started to research by making some phone calls. So I called like an urgent care. I called pediatrician's office There was just like no one even answering the phone. There are 14 callers in the queue. And then I got some really fun hold music okay On brand hold music. Okay so then what did you do? So I went to Walgreens, here's a sign we are out of covid rapid tests. Sorry for any inconvenience. And then I went to tops. I've got my fingers crossed that this will be the solution again.

And then finally I went to shop. Right This is where you will usually have covid tests, is that right? And you don't have, you don't know. At that point I'd spent 2.5 hours trying to get tested and I just kind of gave up molly did not find a covid test. I laid out what happened to dr jay varma. We're at this moment where people are supposed to get tested to sometimes go to their jobs, get tested, to go to school, get tested, to travel. What are you supposed to do if you just can't find it? Oh I wish I had a good answer for that. This is uh I just have to say it is just absolutely um shocking to me that the us ended up in this situation. So for people like molly, unfortunately all I have are our thoughts and prayers at this time. So that's a that's what the doctors got Jay says this is the worst outcome of a system that cannot keep up. Well what you're seeing is a stress test on one aspect of our health care system, which is the diagnostic process, diagnostics usually work through a bunch of public and private labs and that patchwork.

It's been struggling with a huge demand for tests on any given day. Let's say 10% of the us population is trying to get this one specific laboratory test performed. Um and it's, you know, the economic equivalent of a run on the bank. Right? Everybody's like, okay, well today is the day I need to get my money out. Well, the bank isn't set up for that. So you'd get long lines. So all of these problems that those of us who work on public health have known about are just being put up front in the extreme and visual Izabal to everybody, thoughts and prayers, molly thoughts and prayers. Up next we gather the team together again and find out who managed to get a test within 24 hours and who got the results back. We're only doing the pcR today, we have no rapid in, in the States. So this is for you.

Okay, here's the fun part. I've never stuck anything into my nose like this before. So, this is going to be an interesting thing

swab out how far all the way pulling down the mask. Oh boy. All right. But a little deep there

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So testing in many places in the US, it is broken scam tests, secondary markets, no tests, but it is not like this everywhere. And so for just a moment, let's go to a place that has not seen the same testing those that we have the UK as you've probably heard, it has been a lot easier to get tested in the U. K. Hello NPR correspondent frank Langfitt Amanda. So you are at home outside London. How many Covid tests do you think are within like 100 ft of where you're sitting right now. Well, I can tell you exactly that number? It's 14. I have them downstairs and the 14 tests that are in your house right now. How much did you pay for those? Zero? What about for the shipping?

You must have paid for shipping. No no it's free. Everything is free. Okay frank now you're just bragging. No no no I'm not bragging. And I believe me I write mostly critical stories about the british government when it comes to covid when they get something right. You know that deserves to be noted during our call frank uses not just one but two rapid tests. There was an error with the first one. This is a new one. I'm going to do it again. But don't worry about frank. He's not running out after we get off this.

I will order more tests. Wouldn't you love to have it more like frank the U. S. Is trying the details are still being worked out as we are recording this episode. But the government says it is buying a billion tests to give to americans for free. A. S. A. P. Also people with insurance can now in theory get reimbursed for buying those rapid tests. But dr jay varma doesn't think these measures will be quite enough. In theory you could and probably should you know in an ideal world test yourself multiple times a week to make sure you're not symptomatically spreading this infection to other people.

Especially if as is likely to happen. We're going to continue to see waves of this infection and will continue to need to have testing be one of the many tools that we have. President Biden's announcement was a little too little and a little too late for our test taking team and possibly also for this latest covid wave. So here is what happened to us. I sent six people out on this mission for three people. It was actually pretty easy to get a test and to get a result for the other half the ones that you heard from Nick. Dave and molly not so much. We all got back together on a zoom call. Rolling. Rolling. Rolling. Rolling.

I'm rolling. There were a few loose ends to tie up. So nick you gave me the name of the lab and the name of the physician and I did look into it. They both check out and the California department of Public health said yes that test that you took was free. There is no secret bill coming later. But what I was wondering was did you ever get a result? No nick sorry buddy. You didn't get a result from your pcr test? No. And I keep like texting them like the last text message I sent to them was like question mark, question mark, question mark and they have not responded. Well I guess the turnaround time for lab test has gotten very long. It's also possible that my handwriting is terrible and that they just couldn't read my phone number and tell me my test results.

So many things could have happened. Yeah, that's true. Okay, so the good news is that everyone who did get a result back was covid negative.

We are bucking the

national trend. So, as you know, the system is about to change and you should be able to get reimbursed by your insurance for a rapid test. And in theory, the government is supposed to be mailing you some tests soon.

The government reimburse me for my craigslist.

I think you're on your own there with that one. Dave. Thank you everybody for participating. We Who won? Yeah, wait, I know it's true. Who did win? I decided that there were no losers. You're all winners for trying to get tested. I feel like I was the loser. I feel like that's pretty clear. Yeah, maybe molly, maybe that's fair. Maybe molly was the loser if you are running into new and unusual situations as the pandemic enters its third year.

Wow, I hate saying that we want to hear about it, email us at Planet Money at NPR dot org. We're also on instagram, twitter facebook and Tiktok at Planet Money. Today's show was produced by Emma Peasley with help from Dave blanchard. It was mastered by Isaac Rodriguez and edited by jess jiang and molly Messick. Planet Money's executive producer is Alex Goldmark. I'm Amanda or Uncheck. This is NPR Thanks for listening. Mhm. This message is brought to you by the NPR Coffee Club. A subscription brings fresh roasted coffee directly to your door, and you can also give a gift subscription to the NPR super fan in your life. Learn more about our new NPR blends by visiting us at NPR coffee Club dot org. Hey everyone, I'm mary Childs in one of the hosts of Planet Money and I'm here to tell you about a subscription to Planet Money Plus it's a great way to support our show and unlock sponsor, free listening.

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