The Los Angeles Police Department wants to give a rapid-result test to everyone its officers arrest to check for the coronavirus and is pushing city officials to secure the equipment to do so.
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Police Department's civilian oversight body that he has asked City Hall to secure a rapid-result testing system capable of determining within 15 minutes whether people are infected with the coronavirus.
Right now, jails are testing all new arrivals, but results take days to come back, Moore said. The delayed results give the department a "backwards look" at exposure, but rapid-result testing would provide real-time data that could help the department isolate sick detainees, keep others incarcerated in local jails safe and quickly alert officers to any potential exposure, Moore said.
The need for such equipment in Los Angeles, and particularly for those coming into contact with the criminal justice system, is not in question. Already, more than 350 inmates in L.A. County jails have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 100 LAPD officers and staff have tested positive. As of Tuesday, the Police Department had 125 personnel at home, either because they are symptomatic or had close contact with an infected person.
Still, it's unclear whether such rapid-result test machines are coming, or if their test results could even be trusted.
Though Moore told the Police Commission on Tuesday that "the effort of the city is to acquire four" of the rapid-result test machines, and then place them at detainee intake locations around the city, the purchase of such machines remains in doubt.
After days of questioning about the status of such testing, Alex Comisar, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said only that Garcetti "is committed to expanding testing in any way we can, especially among vulnerable populations," and that his administration "will continue looking into this and other testing options as we continue our fight against the spread of COVID-19."
There is neither a chosen vendor nor a contract for the equipment.
Moore told the Police Commission that the national supply of rapid-result testing machines is being controlled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is doling them out under a process that prioritizes hospitals over police departments.
"We're what you would consider Tier 2," Moore told the commission.
However, FEMA denied controlling supplies, saying it "does not control the purchase of testing machines."
The agency said that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the White House's coronavirus task force have helped coordinate the delivery of supplies to states in the past, but now "there is a growing capacity to purchase different types of testing equipment from reputable commercial vendors in the U.S. domestic market."
"The process for purchase follows conventional commercial supply procedures where vendors seek to sell available commodities and project future production to meet demand," the agency said. "FEMA does not collect commercial orders nor do we track requirements for testing machines."
Local agencies, including police departments, that want help fighting the coronavirus should direct their requests through their states first, FEMA said.
"Any needs that cannot be met by the state or tribe should then be sent to the respective FEMA regional office," it said.
A police spokesman referred questions about Moore's comments back to Garcetti's office.
If Los Angeles were to obtain rapid-test machines, the results could be viewed with some skepticism.
Recent studies have raised doubts about the accuracy of rapid-result tests for the coronavirus, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday issuing an alert about one major manufacturer's test potentially returning false negatives.
The agency said it had received 15 "adverse event reports" suggesting users of the Abbott ID Now test were receiving inaccurate negative results. It said it is working to determine why, and whether certain types of equipment used in conjunction with the tests, such as swabs, are causing the errors.
Dr. Tim Stenzel, director of the FDA's Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health, said that the tests can still be used to identify "many positive cases in minutes" but that negative results "may need to be confirmed" with additional, highly sensitive follow-up testing.
Abbott, in its own statement, said that "no test is perfect" but that ID Now "has been delivering reliable results when and where they're needed" and remains an "important tool" in the nation's testing arsenal.
"The availability and ease-of-access of ID Now, which delivers results in minutes rather than a day or more, is helping to reduce the risk of infection in society by detecting more positive results than would otherwise be found," the company said.
Testing capacity has been a problem in the United States since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, caused in part by a failed first attempt by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to produce and distribute working tests.
Private manufacturers have since stepped into the fold to provide tests, including to state and local governments, but the national dearth of testing capacity has made the market for the associated processing equipment hyper-competitive.
City officials did not have estimates for the cost of a rapid testing system for the city, though machines run into the thousands of dollars each.