All Los Angeles County residents will now have access to free coronavirus testing regardless of whether they have symptoms, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Wednesday, noting that Los Angeles is the first major city in the United States to roll out such an effort.
Previously, testing in Los Angeles was limited to individuals showing symptoms, frontline workers and those who lived or were employed at institutional facilities such as nursing homes. By opening testing centers to the broader population, Garcetti said officials hope to stem the spread of the potentially deadly infection by identifying asymptomatic carriers while also gaining a better understanding of the virus's impacts on the community.
"As long as this disease spreads, we have to continue to scale, and as long as this disease takes lives, we must test," Garcetti, a Democrat, said at his daily coronavirus briefing. "We know that coronavirus is a silent killer that moves quietly through the population, and many of the people who transmit the disease, this is why it is so deadly, don't know that they have it."
Los Angeles County officials reported 1,541 new cases of the coronavirus Wednesday, the largest increase of infections reported in a single day since the outbreak began, according to the Los Angeles Times. The county now has more than 22,400 reported cases with just over 1,000 deaths.
During the briefing, Garcetti encouraged residents to make appointments to get tested, stressing that those with symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath will be prioritized. There are currently 34 testing sites countywide and the city has the capacity to test 18,000 people a day, Garcetti said.
"Don't wait, don't wonder and don't risk infecting others," he said. "This is a really important step to prepare for other steps forward in the weeks to come."
Garcetti's announcement comes just days after President Donald Trump unveiled what the White House called a "blueprint" for expanding testing capacity nationwide that largely places the responsibility on states to create their own plans and rapid-response programs, The Washington Post reported. The White House's guidance follows mounting pressure from health experts and local leaders who have called for a national testing strategy to be implemented as states have started to work toward easing restrictions amid the ongoing pandemic.
While California has not approached reopening as aggressively as other states, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, unveiled his four-phase plan Tuesday, which included the possibility that select businesses could be up and running again within weeks, according to the Los Angeles Times.
On Wednesday, Garcetti expressed confidence that there would be enough tests for anyone who wants one, despite the county being home to roughly 10 million people — a belief echoed by Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Jeff Gorell, who is helping to lead the city's outbreak response.
"We feel very comfortable with meeting the demand and the truth is every time we announce a larger population is invited to test, we brace for being overrun and we haven't been overrun yet," Gorell told The Post. "We just have not met capacity."
Since Los Angeles began testing last month, Gorell said the number of tests available has consistently been greater than the number of people requesting them.
Before Wednesday, Los Angeles was ordering 3,000 tests a day from an FDA-approved lab in the neighboring city of San Dimas, which also processes the results, Gorell said. On an average day, only around 1,500 people would show up to get tested, he said.
"We have excess appointments and we have excess kits left over," he said. "In the crisis we find ourselves in, we don't want to be in that position. We want to use all of the capacity that we have."
In preparation for a swell of people seeking tests, Gorell said the city is now upping its daily order to 10,000 kits. Testing sites — many of which are run by trained volunteers from Community Organized Relief Effort, a nonprofit founded by actor Sean Penn — are also prepared to handle any influx, he said.
"We'll get a pretty good sense in the next couple of days as to what that demand is," he said, adding that officials would like to see most, if not all, open appointments fill up.
Gorell said he anticipates the expansion in testing to play a major part in influencing how the city adjusts its coronavirus response moving forward.
Officials are hopeful test results that include those who are asymptomatic will help them get a more accurate understanding of how the virus is spreading in the community and provide critical data that will inform future policies and guidelines. The new testing format may also lead to a larger number of residents being aware of their conditions, knowledge that could contribute to slowing community transmissions.