Twice now, on March 13 and again on April 27, President Trump gathered some of the country’s top corporate executives — from test producers to lab processors to major retailers — to tout his plan to make COVID-19 testing widely available. His vision: Blanket the country in drive-through testing sites.
The president, speaking from the White House Rose Garden, promised that “stores in virtually every location” would be rolling out testing, including some of the “greatest retailers anywhere in the world” that “cover this country in large part,” such as CVS, Target, Walgreens and Walmart.
The results have been modest at best. NPR reviewed the number of sites these retailers set up and found they are small in quantity compared to their national reach. On average, only 4% of the companies’ stores are currently hosting drive-through testing sites:
Collectively, these six companies have almost 32,000 locations nationwide, but only about 1,300 of those stores have COVID-19 testing sites, or an average of 4%, according to numbers obtained from the retailers. And the lion’s share of those sites are from CVS alone, which has opened nearly 1,000 sites.
The most rapid and expansive mobilization has been from CVS and Walmart, which met their pledged number of drive-through testing sites, while others, such as Walgreens and Kroger, made vague promises or no promises at all. None of those pledges were particularly ambitious relative to the scale of the retail chains.
“We never made sweeping statements like some of our competitors did, where we’re going to open up a thousand testing sites. … We put the promise out initially to do 25 sites, and we fulfilled that promise,” says Rite Aid spokesperson Chris Altman, noting that the company has exceeded its original goal.
Some of Walgreens’ testing sites are at shuttered stores, and all of Rite Aid’s sites are at locations such as closed schools and vacant parking lots, not at the stores themselves.
Contacted for comment, the White House referred NPR to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which said the drive-through testing program “continues to provide Americans with faster, less invasive and more convenient testing.”
At the beginning of the crisis, retailers were not well-equipped or generally set up to organize drive-through COVID-19 testing at a national scale, as the relatively small number of test sites suggests. Some of the retailers had no pharmacists, nor the supplies to do testing.
“That vision of basically every CVS on the corner, every Walmart or Target, being able to do the testing may not have been realistic from the beginning,” says Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, a lead epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Testing Insights Initiative. “It is probably likely that only some of the facilities are actually suitable for that kind of testing.”
For example, Nuzzo says, some stores may not have room to offer drive-through testing or to accommodate potentially infectious patients.
There still is no consensus about how much testing the U.S. requires. Numerous testing locations have popped up at community health centers and hospitals across the country, but those are largely local initiatives.
The president’s declaration that retailers offering tests at “stores in virtually every location” gave the impression that Americans would easily be able to access COVID-19 testing at national chain retail locations convenient to them. But the numbers are clear: That never happened.
“Where the blame should lie is probably not with the retailers,” said Dr. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, referring to the relatively small number of drive-through testing sites now operating at the major chains. “Because there is not, as we know, a coherent national response to this. It’s driven very much at the local level.”
He added: “At every single level there has been a failure to meet the challenge and to actually give people the testing they need.”