LOS ANGELES – With ample coronavirus tests and not enough sick people seeking them, the mayor of Los Angeles recently did something on a scale no other major U.S. city had done — allow anyone with or without symptoms to be tested as often as they want.
A website to book a test was quickly swamped by residents in the nation’s second-largest city and the surrounding county who couldn’t get tested under more stringent guidelines and were concerned they were infected or could be asymptomatic carriers unwittingly exposing others.
But despite overbooking to compensate for a third of the people who didn't show up, the city still has thousands of tests that aren't being used each week, according to figures provided to The Associated Press by the mayor's office.
“Wasted tests at a time when we still have insufficient testing is really unfortunate,” said Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, a San Diego-based medical research partnership. “I applaud what they’re doing. The more people tested the better.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti's vow to not let a test go to waste was the result of a partnership with a start-up company that developed an easy-to-administer test that doesn't rely on scarce supplies. But it was a significant departure from stricter state criteria and guidelines set by the health department the city shares with the county to limit tests to those who need them most.
It comes at a time when expanded testing is a cornerstone of the state's plan to ease its stay-at-home order and as Los Angeles County has become the epicenter of the virus outbreak and lags progress the rest of the state has shown.
While the virus was initially worse in Northern California, LA County, home to a quarter of the state’s nearly 40 million residents, now accounts for more than half the state’s deaths and a case count growing more rapidly than other major state counties. A large nursing home population, accounting for about half the county's deaths, and densely housed poor people are two main reasons.
When Garcetti opened up testing April 30, the county at large had relaxed some guidelines on who could get a test, with priorities going to the sickest and most vulnerable. It allowed testing some people without symptoms, including health care workers and emergency personnel most at risk of exposure.