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VIDEO: What The U.S. Is Doing About Its Testing Swab Shortage

Widespread testing for the coronavirus is key to safely reopening the country, but the U.S. has struggled for months to get to the level of testing many experts say we need — even as states and cities begin to loosen restrictions.

Part of the problem is that a test for the coronavirus is not a single device. Testing entails several different steps and requires supplies and pieces of equipment sourced from different places. These supplies have to make it from factories to testing sites where patients' samples can be collected and to the lab where tests are processed. Along the way, there can be shortages of various components, each one potentially creating a bottleneck.

The most common kind of test to check for an active coronavirus infection takes a sample from the back of your nose or throat. There are dozens of varieties of that test, but they all require one key element: the swab.

Even though health experts and governors were warning of swab shortages as early as February, the federal government took until late April to increase domestic production. That means that now, months into this crisis, we still need more of them.

In this video, we zero in on the swab, detailing what the federal government and private industry did and didn't do, and we break down why testing is so complicated in the first place.

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Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.