Trump's Plan For Drive-Up COVID-19 Tests At Stores Yields Few Results

Jun 1, 2020
Originally published on June 1, 2020 12:01 pm

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:

  • Target has just a single COVID-19 testing site, in Chula Vista, Calif., out of 1,871 locations (0.05%)
  • Walgreens has opened 28 sites; it has 9,277 locations (0.3%)
  • Kroger is supporting 64 testing sites; it has 2,800 stores (2.3%)
  • Rite Aid has 71 testing sites; it has 2,464 locations (2.9%)
  • Walmart is hosting 180 testing sites among its 5,352 stores (3.4%)
  • CVS has 986 test sites plus five "rapid result" locations across its 9,900 stores (10%)

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."

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We follow up now on a promise made by the president. In March, the president announced a big advance in coronavirus testing. He said big retailers would set up testing sites. They were supposed to include CVS, Target, Walgreens and Walmart. At a Rose Garden event in April, the president said it was all going great.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What Walmart and the others have done has been nothing short of amazing.

INSKEEP: Has it really been? Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team found very few testing sites have ever opened. Good morning.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How have you gone about following up on this promise by the president?

PFEIFFER: So my colleagues and I have called all the stores to find out how many they have and then how many of those stores have testing sites. We first vetted this pledge about a month after President Trump made it. At that point, we found there were barely any sites. As of mid-April, CVS, Walgreens and Walmart together had only eight testing sites in the whole country. Target had none.

INSKEEP: Oh, so zero. So not a good number there. But that was mid-April. How about now?

PFEIFFER: The situation has improved but not substantially. We did another tally last week, and the numbers are still pretty measly. Target now has a single testing site out of nearly 1,900 U.S. stores. Walgreens, out of more than 9,000 stores, has 28 testing sites. That means 0.3% of Walgreens locations offer testing. Kroger is about 2%. Rite Aid and Walmart, each about 3%. CVS gets credit for the largest number - 10% of its locations have testing sites.

INSKEEP: Still, disappointing numbers across the board, and maybe even more so because you hear these company names and you can hear the potential. I would think almost everybody in America lives close to one of these companies. It could be amazing.

PFEIFFER: Yes. Collectively, these six companies have about 32,000 locations nationwide. But right now only about 1,300 of those stores have COVID-19 testing sites. That's just 4% on average. And keep in mind, CVS accounts for 1,000 of those 1,300.

INSKEEP: OK. What are the reasons that the companies give for not having opened more sites?

PFEIFFER: Well, the White House seems to have overpromised what the private sector was able or willing to do, and then shortages of supplies like swabs may have made the companies reluctant to get involved. Also, many stores don't have room for drive-through testing. Here's Jennifer Nuzzo. She's a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist who tracks COVID-19 testing.

JENNIFER NUZZO: That vision of, you know, basically every CVS on the corner, every Walmart or Target being able to do the testing may not have been realistic from the beginning because it is probably likely that only some of the facilities are actually suitable for that kind of testing.

INSKEEP: So this was not realistic to begin with and hasn't materialized.

PFEIFFER: It doesn't seem to have. Now, there are some hospitals and health centers that offer drive-through testing through local initiatives, but we looked at the big retail chains mentioned by the president. And by the way, Steve, in the case of Rite Aid, all its testing sites are at locations like vacant parking lots, not the actual stores.

INSKEEP: Since we are vetting a promise by the president, how specific was the president anyway? Did he say how many drive-through testing sites there would be?

PFEIFFER: No. He made a promise that sounded grand, but he was very vague, and so that left the companies to figure out the number. I asked another epidemiologist, Dr. William Hanage of Harvard's School of Public Health, who should be faulted for how few drive-through sites have opened at the big chains.

WILLIAM HANAGE: Where the blame should lie is probably not with the retailers. At every single level, there has been a failure to meet the challenge and to actually give people the testing they need.

INSKEEP: And probably not with the retailers, meaning pointing at the government. But there is a question now, Sacha Pfeiffer - how much testing should we be doing as we head into this new phase of the pandemic?

PFEIFFER: There has never really been a consensus on that, so it's hard to say whether having, on average, 4% of these major retail stores offering testing - which is now the case - whether that's satisfactory. But certainly, the White House gave the impression that drive-through testing was going to be widespread, and that's not the case. It is statistically unlikely that a Kroger, Rite Aid, Target, Walgreens or Walmart near you currently offers testing. A CVS? Maybe.

INSKEEP: Sacha, thanks.

PFEIFFER: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.