Reports of COVID-19 test shortages spark Baldwin letter to VP Pence

    NUTLEY, NJ - FEBRUARY 28: A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
    NUTLEY, NJ - FEBRUARY 28: A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

    In a letter this week to Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) called out the Trump administration for shortages of supplies needed for COVID-19 testing.

    “The failure of leadership from the Trump Administration is resulting in a rationing of health care in Wisconsin and it is unacceptable,” Baldwin wrote in the letter sent on Tuesday, addressing Pence in his capacity as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. “Months into this crisis, and we do not have enough supplies available in the state of Wisconsin for the widespread testing that is needed to monitor and contain the virus.”

    Sen. Tammy Baldwin
    Sen. Tammy Baldwin

    Baldwin’s letter was prompted by reports that Milwaukee-based Advocate Aurora Health, which operates hospitals and clinics in Wisconsin and northern Illinois, has had to curtail testing as “the federal government redirects testing supplies to COVID-19 hotspots across the U.S.”

    The 15-hospital healthcare network, in an Aug. 5 press release, stated that to conserve testing supplies as a result of delayed shipments, it had suspended COVID-19 tests given before certain procedures, opting instead for greater use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

    Observing that “your own taskforce has labeled our state a ‘hot spot’ and we have just experienced, once again, a single-day record of new coronavirus cases,” Baldwin told Pence: “Health care providers who have spent months working tirelessly in their communities to promote public health and provide care to those impacted by COVID-19 are now being asked to perform procedures on patients that have not been tested for coronavirus. This policy will put their lives at risk in and create the potential for outbreaks in the very places meant to protect us from the virus.”

    Advocate Aurora also centralized its community and mobile testing to Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee starting Aug 6., and since then has added another centralized community testing site at Aurora BayCare in Green Bay, according to a spokesman. In Illinois, the organization put community and mobile testing on hold.

    Advocate Aurora is not alone in facing a shortfall. “We are seeing that a number of our labs … are having challenges with getting adequate reagents” used for the testing process, Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy health secretary at the state Department of Health Services (DHS), told reporters in a media briefing on Aug. 7. Supplies “appear to be diverted to other places in the nation,” she said.

    Besides urging Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation and the White House to address the shortfalls, DHS has encouraged labs to use materials produced by Wisconsin suppliers, Willems Van Dijk said.

    Baldwin told Pence that the shortage shows a “failure of leadership from the Trump administration [that] is resulting in a rationing of health care in Wisconsin, and it is unacceptable.” She concluded with a demand that “Testing supplies must be made available now to states, including Wisconsin, and distributed in a transparent manner that is based on public health and science.”

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.