COVID-19 in Pa: U.S. Sens. Casey, Toomey push for faster testing to combat crisis

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey (D) and Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania (Capital-Star file)

WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania’s two United States senators want expanded access to COVID-19 testing as public health officials continue to scramble to contain the disease caused by a new coronavirus. 

“We’re still quite a ways from where I think we need to end up,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.,  told reporters Tuesday on a conference call. “All constructive response to this, it seems to me, is dramatically enhanced by having this [testing] data.” 

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., also expressed concerns on Twitter Friday. “Right now in America, it is easier to get an AR-15 than a test kit for COVID-19,” he wrote. 

Toomey was joined on Tuesday’s call by Dr. Ronald Walsh, the clinical laboratory director at Health Network Laboratories/Lehigh Valley Health Network. 

Walsh said the laboratory medicine community “has made significant strides as far as having the correct capacity for what our providers need, but yes, we still have additional work to do.” He added that major testing bottlenecks have “already been addressed” and expects that his laboratory will go live with its own lab-developed coronavirus tests in the coming days. 

Within the Lehigh Valley Health Network, Walsh said, “We’re advising any patient basically with flu-like symptoms to either call their provider or do a tele-health visit.” Providers will then decide whether to refer patients to one of eight regional assessment centers for COVID-19. 

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Providers are no longer limiting testing to those who have traveled to certain areas or those with specific known exposure. “It would be basically anyone with flu-like symptoms, were a clear alternate diagnosis not available.” 

 And given the still-limited capacity for testing, Walsh said, “I wouldn’t want to see unnecessary testing of asymptomatic individuals at this point. I would rather again focus on patients that have traveled to hot spots, they were exposed to someone with COVID-19 or they have flu-like symptoms and there’s no alternative diagnosis.” 

Both Toomey and Casey are expected to consider an additional coronavirus aid package this week, after the House passed a second major response bill over the weekend. 

Toomey told reporters Tuesday that he has some concerns about “the mechanism” by which aid would be provided to individuals impacted by the illness in the House-passed bill. He said he supports the concept of paid sick leave for workers — a central component of that bill — but is concerned about the impacts on Pennsylvania’s small businesses. 

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“The idea of somebody who in these circumstances is not going to be able to work, I support the idea that there would be a safety net for them, but the mechanism matters,” Toomey said. 

The Lehigh Valley Republican said he and other colleagues met Monday night with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to discuss the Senate’s legislation. 

And senators are starting to work on the contours of another bill “which would be more broadly geared for macroeconomic purposes to try to make sure that what looks like an inevitable recession does not become a really severe one, it doesn’t become a financial crisis,” Toomey said. 

Politico reported Tuesday that the White House and Senate Republicans are considering combining a House-passed coronavirus aid bill with President Donald Trump’s request for $850 billion in stimulus spending. 

Casey on Tuesday announced that he and his Democratic colleagues had sent three letters to Trump administration officials pressing the Coronavirus Task Force for more information on their response plans for seniors and people with disabilities. Casey is the top Democrat on the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging. 

“Seniors, particularly those in nursing homes, and individuals with disabilities are at a greater risk during this pandemic,” the Scranton lawmaker said in a statement. “It’s essential that the Administration outline its plans to protect these Americans.”