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Feds seized COVID-19 mass test machine from SLO County

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In March, a consortium of local governments and hospitals convened to tackle one of the most critical aspects of confronting the incoming COVID-19 pandemic: building test capacity.

Working with Dignity Health, Tenet Health, Santa Barbara County, and the state Department of Public Health, San Luis Obispo County health officials placed an order for a high-capacity test machine that could run hundreds of COVID-19 tests a day and deliver results in just a few hours.

TESTING In March, SLO County ordered a high-capacity COVID-19 test machine to serve the region, but the federal government commandeered it and it's yet to be delivered. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CDC
  • Photo Courtesy Of The CDC
  • TESTING In March, SLO County ordered a high-capacity COVID-19 test machine to serve the region, but the federal government commandeered it and it's yet to be delivered.

The $100,000 machine produced by medical tech firm Hologic would've been stationed at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria, establishing a regional hub for testing.

"We had a five-way partnership," said Jim Beebe, lab director at the SLO County Department of Public Health. "The capacity of the machine installed at Marian would have allowed that lab to perform 500 tests per day."

But the machine never arrived, because the federal government had other plans for it. State officials informed SLO County soon after it placed the order that the federal government commandeered the equipment and there would be no certain date for its delivery.

"I believe they took control when they invoked the Defense Production Act," Beebe said. "The order is in and has not been fulfilled."

Beebe said he didn't know which federal agency redirected the order or where the machine ultimately went.

FEMA denied having any role in it. An agency spokesperson told New Times that FEMA "has not ordered or purchased any Hologic machines for the COVID-19 pandemic response." The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did not return a request for comment by press time.

It wasn't the first time that the federal government delayed COVID-19 medical supplies from reaching the Central Coast. It also intervened on SLO County's order of 100 ventilators in March, which was made to augment local hospital supply.

Nationwide, public health and hospital officials have reported instances of the federal government seizing their orders of medical supplies, from testing equipment to personal protective gear.

An April 7 Los Angeles Times article detailed how FEMA, HHS, and the Department of Defense had "developed a system for identifying needed supplies from vendors" to distribute around the country.

The Defense Production Act, which President Trump invoked, gives federal agencies priority on orders of critical materials, ahead of local and state governments. But the seizures have been frustrating and confusing at times for localities as they try to prepare their communities for the pandemic.

"[COVID-19] has been a difficult time for many reasons, and this is just one of them," Beebe said.

SLO County adjusted to the seizure and built up its test capacity in other ways. A state partnership with OptumServe brought free testing sites to Paso Robles, Grover Beach, and Santa Maria. The SLO County Public Health lab has acquired a different Hologic test machine that will increase its daily test count by 200—as soon as the necessary reagents (substances used in chemcial analysis) arrive.

Beebe said that the supply chain on test materials, like reagents, is still pretty bottlenecked. But he noted that the region is in a lot better place with testing than it was two months ago.

"I'm pretty sure we're running 400 tests per day throughout the county," he said. "Right now, I think a lot of our capacity problems have been solved." Δ

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