What’s up with Maryland’s 500,000 coronavirus tests from South Korea?

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announces that all nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the state must conduct universal coronavirus testing of all residents and staff. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

With much fanfare, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan last week announced the purchase of 500,000 coronavirus test kits from South Korea, which he called “a game-changing step” to expand testing in the state.

But a report in The Washington Post cited frustration by local leaders with the slow rollout of the tests in the week and a half since the announcement.

Speaking on a Washington Post Live webcast Thursday morning, Hogan pushed back on the criticism and promised the tests will soon be put to use to dramatically ramp up testing in some key areas.

But he said the $9 million order of tests is “only one part of the puzzle” to increase testing in the state, because there are still shortages of other supplies needed to run the tests.

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Hogan said the South Korean tests would be used to perform mass testing at poultry plants on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where an outbreak has sickened 216 workers, and also used to perform mandatory testing of all residents and staff at nursing homes, which account for 46% of the state’s coronavirus deaths.

Both of those measures were announced Wednesday during a news conference.

“We’re doing that with those Korean tests that we were just talking about,” Hogan said.

Speaking on The Post webcast, Hogan said thousands of the South Korean test kits have been sent to a testing site at Perdue stadium in Salisbury, Maryland, to test poultry processing workers.

Wicomico County health officials working to get the new testing center up and running told WTOP they didn’t have specifics on how many tests were on hand and how many of those were part of the South Korean shipment.

‘One part of the puzzle’

During the webcast, Hogan called the shipment of tests a “huge accomplishment,” but he said it was not designed to solve all of Maryland’s testing problems.

“When I announced that 10 days ago, I said it was still only a part of the puzzle, because we still needed swabs and reagents,” Hogan said. “There are about nine different steps in this process. That was a big chunk of it. The rest of it, we’re continuing to work on.”

There are nationwide shortages of some of the other supplies needed to run tests, including reagents, nasal swabs and the lab capacity to process tests. Last week, the White House announced it would use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of nasal swabs.

Asked when Maryland communities would have all the other necessary supplies to actually use the South Korean tests, Hogan said: “We’re using as many of them as we can. And as the additional supplies come in, we’re utilizing more of them. But when we acquired the tests, we said that was helping us on a long-term strategy. So, we always intended this to be over several months, that we would utilize those half a million tests, not in the first week that we acquired them.”

Speaking at the news conference Wednesday, Hogan said the South Korean tests would also eventually be used at community testing centers, like in Prince George’s County, which has seen the highest number of coronavirus cases and which Hogan called a “hot spot.”

Prince George’s County “will be on that list” to receive South Korean tests, but nursing homes and other spots where there are “outbreaks and clusters” will be prioritized.

“Prince George’s County will certainly be at the top of the list of where some of the community testing is going to be done,” Hogan said.

Montgomery Co. exec: ‘The tests are sort of like paperweights …’

As of Wednesday, before the governor had laid out his plans to use the tests to tamp down “hot spots” across the state, officials in Montgomery County said they were still waiting on an update on the status of the South Korean tests.

“We’re still awaiting more details in terms of how the tests will be operationalized and how they will be disseminated to local jurisdictions, and what guidance we will receive in terms of how they should be used,” Montgomery County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles told reporters during an online news briefing Wednesday.

Gayles pointed out that beyond the test kits themselves, the full testing process requires swabs and reagents, which remain in short supply.

During that same news briefing, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said the county is looking at acquiring its own tests.

“We’ve gone down the rabbit hole of any number of different tests,” he said.

Without the reagents and the swabs, “the tests are sort of like paperweights until you get to the point that you can actually utilize them,” Elrich said.

Regarding the governor’s supply of South Korean test kits, Gayles added: “We’re not necessarily relying on those test kits to solve all of our testing issues. We continue to pursue other options through leveraging partnerships with private laboratories, as well as looking at how we can leverage some of the newer technology.”

Tests under National Guard watch ‘at undisclosed location’

During The Post webcast, Hogan was asked about whether he had concerns the federal government would try to seize the shipment of tests that arrived on an Korean Air jet at BWI Marshall Airport on April 18.

“There was a little bit of a concern,” Hogan said, citing reports out of Massachusetts that a shipment of N95 masks ordered by Gov. Charlie Baker were confiscated by the federal government.

Hogan said the plane with the South Korean tests was met “with a large contingent of Maryland National Guard and Maryland State Police, because this was an enormously valuable payload. It was like Fort Knox to us because it’s going to save the lives of thousands of our citizens.”

He added: “That was so important to us that we wanted to make sure that that plane took off from Korea safely, landed here in America safely, and that we guarded that cargo from whoever might interfere with us getting that to our folks that needed it.”

Hogan said the National Guard and the state police are continuing to guard the tests “at an undisclosed location.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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