State lawmakers are calling for an accounting of how 500,000 COVID-19 tests purchased from South Korea have been used during the ongoing pandemic.
The much ballyhooed announcement of the acquisition of those tests has been followed by scant details of how they’ve been used.
“I think it’s wonderful … but it did cost more than $9 million in state money and our constituents money,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, D-Prince George’s and vice chair of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, during a Wednesday hearing that included top officials from the Maryland Department of Health.
Health Secretary Robert “Bobby” Neall and Dennis Schrader, the chief operating officer of the department, appeared before the committee to discuss testing in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Later, they faced stiff questioning from several lawmakers demanding information about how and where the tests from South Korea were used.
“I don’t know if we have the information, madam chair. I will inquire,” Neall said during an exchange with Del. Shane Pedergrass, D-Howard and chair of the committee.
Pendergrass and others also want to know how many of the original tests were used before Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he had swapped them out with newer tests.
“How could you not know what tests you gave to the lab? Don’t you know whether the tests were swapped out or they weren’t swapped out?” Pendergrass said.
“Well, I’ll try to get the answer for you,” said Neall.” The only thing that I’m saying is that those tests came at a time when the world didn’t have any tests and we were damn glad to get them and the fact that we got them saved a lot of lives, because we were able to test when other people were not able to test.”
The claims of testing and lives saved did not satisfy Pendergrass.
“Sort of, sort of. We didn’t have all the parts so we really couldn’t use them immediately so it’s, I mean it was a great idea and the general concept was good, but the reality is that we didn’t have the parts so we couldn’t run those tests, and now we don’t know what tests we’ve given to (University of Maryland, Baltimore),” she said.
Hogan announced the acquisition of 500,000 LabGun COVID-19 tests kits during an April news conference. The $9 million purchase was facilitated by his wife, Yumi Hogan, at a time when states were scrambling to find their own supplies in the absence of federal assistance.
The kits were flown in secretly aboard a Korean Airlines jet directly to Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the first time the airline had landed at the Maryland airport. The Maryland National Guard and Maryland State Police provided protection for the kits, which Hogan said at the time was because of concerns that the federal government might try to seize them as it had done with supplies in other states.
At the April news conference Hogan acknowledged the kits did not contain all the parts needed, including lab capability, nasal swabs and chemicals for the tests.
“They’re all complete, they’re all usable and we’re using them,” said Neall on Wednesday.
Since the tests arrived, the state has funded the creation of a new lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which is touted as having the capability to handle 20,000 tests per day.
In July, Hogan announced he had swapped out as many as 400,000 of the original tests purchased from LabGenomics.
He told WBAL television that the performance of the original tests was not a concern but that the state had a chance to upgrade its kits.
“Did we really use the original Korean tests that we showed all over the media and are those the ones you were just talking about,” asked Del. Brian Chisholm, R-Anne Arundel, Wednesday. “It’s very confusing that we traded them in for rapid tests.”
“It’s a big price that we paid, and the taxpayers have a right to know did we really use these,” said Chisholm.
But Neall and Schrader said they couldn’t immediately provide a detailed accounting on the original tests because they weren’t involved in the acquisition.
“What I do know is that as we set up the UMB lab, we moved the 500K tests to them as part of their working capital to get that operation up and running,” said Schrader.
Schrader said the state has “burned through about 150,000 tests” used at both the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and a second lab.
“They’ve proven to be a very valuable resource to us particularly as we’ve gotten the UMB lab up and running, because we were able to give them those tests as a baseline working capital contribution,” said Schrader. “They’re being used every day.”
Neall encouraged the committee to think about the tests differently.
“I have to tell you I’m not counting test tubes every day, but I will do my best to get you a suitable answer,” said Neall. “Those tests are being used. They’re being deployed, and they are a major state asset, because if there was a supply chain problem with testing kits, we have those several hundred thousand testing kits in our inventory that we can deploy so that our work is not interrupted. I wouldn’t measure this by how many have been used. I think you ought to measure it by what good it does to have those at hand.”