At Hearing, University of Cincinnati Health Officer Thanks Portman for Help Acquiring COVID-19 Diagnostic Machine & Advises on Next Steps to Increase Testing & Supplies  

July 30, 2020 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, at a Senate Finance Committee hearing, the University of Cincinnati (UC) Health's Chief Supply Chain and Logistics Officer Rob Wiehe praised U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) for his role in helping the University of Cincinnati Health System acquire a Roche machine to increase their ability to run COVID-19 diagnostic tests.  In April, Portman worked with the Department of Health and Human Services to help secure a Roche testing machine to run COVID diagnostic tests, at a time when Southwest Ohio was in desperate need.  

Portman also asked Wiehe about what more Congress could do in order to speed up COVID-19 testing results and increase testing supplies for testing sites. Portman has been vocal about the need for increased COVID-19 testing and reshoring production of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) in the United States. Reshoring production will ensure American workers, students, health care professionals, and more have the PPE they need as the economy continues to reopen. Domestic production of PPE supplies will also create and protect American jobs. Last month, Portman urged the COVID-19 Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) to prioritize the procurement of American-made PPE, and to consider comprehensive measures to incentivize the reshoring of additional PPE production back to the United States. Portman intends to introduce legislation soon to re-shore PPE by requiring the JATF to issue long-term contracts for American-made PPE.   

Excerpts from the hearing can be found below and a video can be found here.  

Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. First of all, Rob Wiehe, thank you for coming to testify. It’s been great working with you and Dr. Lofgren and other folks at University of Cincinnati over the past few months to address this unprecedented pandemic. And I was pleased we were able to get the right testing equipment way back in March. You all contacted me and said you had ordered a test and that you were told by the folks at Roche in this case that they had to take the test somewhere else at a time when we were desperately in need of it in the southwest Ohio region. So I’m glad we were able to get that test by getting HHS involved and I’m glad we have increased testing in Ohio. We’ve now gone from about 8,000 tests a day to about 22,000 tests a day -- I think that’s the average the last week -- in the space of about six weeks and that was needed. The problem is people aren’t getting their results quickly enough and I want to talk to you about that. That’s certainly the information I have, some of it is anecdotal, I will acknowledge, but it’s basically people saying, ‘Look I can now get a test’ and I went to the pop up testing center and I’m glad we have those now, and we’ve used some federal money for that. Some of the money that came out of the CARES Act but I got to know the results more quickly than 6 to 8 days in order for it to be effective. Someone told me about their kid who had to take a test in order to go back to a sports team but the results came so late that they had to be retested again. And I don’t get that. I mean we are finally getting the testing up to where we all want it in our states -- I’d still like to see even more testing because I think that’s essential to getting us back to work safely and back to school and back to using health care facilities and in general, leading a more normal life -- but I think that not having the ability to get the results quickly enough really undermines those efforts. And again, in some cases, people have had to test and retest, including some of the companies that have asked for testing and I’m just talking about the diagnostics test here, I’m not even talking about the immunity test, which has other issues we can talk about in terms of its accuracy. But one, Rob, if you could just tell me, do you agree with the information that I’m getting with regard to the timing on tests? How quickly people get results of their tests. Is that accurate from your experience and the data that you have? And then second, if I’m right, I want to then dig a little deeper into why. It’s the reagents, having the technical expertise and the technicians available, it’s just the machines, like the one you have, being overwhelmed with the number of tests, I’m told. But I wanted to get your perspective on both of those things, so Rob, could you give us a little help there? 

Mr. Rob Wiehe, Senior Vice President, Chief Supply Chain And Logistics Officer for UC Health: “Yes, first of all I would like to say thank you again, Senator Portman, for helping us with the Roche diagnostic equipment. Much-needed in the region here. So I do agree there’s a lot of variability with the timing of getting tests results. And what we’re seeing, we have the Roche machine as well as some other machines in house. We are on allocation on most of our testing supplies and it presents some difficulties with planning for our lab. The Roche machine, for example, we have folks on all three shifts who can run that. It’s a, as I understand it,  a little easier machine to run than some of our other equipment, but if we don’t know that we can get supplies on that piece of equipment regularly, planning for that it is difficult. So that’s one element. I think you mentioned the pop-up testing sites. We are regional sites, so we’re getting tests sent in from lots of other facilities but that unknown demand can trigger on any day much more than we can handle or it could be much less or a very appropriate amount. So I think from having the correct supplies and the proper personnel inside aligned, aligning that with the demand that we may see on any given day does affect the timing of getting these tests back. And I think that lack of coordination, if you will, from end to end, contributes to the frustration you're  hearing and the public perception about testing capabilities and confidence.” 

Portman: “Hey Rob, can you dig a little deeper in terms of the supplies? Again, I’m not trying to make this about your Roche test, I’m asking you more broadly about what you’re experiencing, in your case in southwest Ohio, but I think many members have the same question. Is it the reagent that is not available and I know that depends on the test and where the reagent comes from. I know some come from foreign places  -- Germany or Asia in some cases. But what are you talking about specifically that’s a bottleneck in the system in terms of supplies and what could we do to solve that problem?” 

Mr. Wiehe: “We’ve experienced a little bit, early on especially, on the swabs that are needed. Many of those came from one region in Europe and that was one of the hardest-hit. So that certainly created a barrier early and continues to be somewhat of a barrier.” 

Portman: We’ve got limited time here, but on the swabs I’m told that we’re now making swabs in this country, specifically we are using 3D technology and other things to try to produce them more rapidly. Is that accurate? Do you see that probably being solved or is that still an issue?” 

Mr. Wiehe: “So there’s been a lot of innovation and certainly not my area of expertise per se, however what I can tell you is we’ve had 3D swabs, we’ve talked to laboratories, we’ve brought them in. As we tested some of those innovative solutions, internally, we didn’t feel that the results were adequate. We couldn’t validate the results in our lab so we’ve chosen not to use some of the solutions like that. Some of the other labs, some of the other things that are being produced for other industries as well. So our lab was looking at everything, I think we again, we’re doing better than we did early in the crisis. Some of those innovative solutions just haven’t proven to be something that we at UC Health have chosen utilize. Again, to the solution, we are on allocation from pretty much everybody. Some of the testing producers have had issue in production and it was because of plastics and some of the other materials they couldn’t get, which is severely limited what we could get. As I mentioned, early hotspots, certainly supplies are being diverted appropriately to those areas as well. So I think it’s a combination of all those factors, Senator, that’s still making it a little bit of an unknown from day to day or week to week.” 

Portman: “So what I’m hearing from you is that supplies continues to be an issue. I’m going to give you some homework here, if you don’t mind, if you can get back us to specifically, maybe talk to some of your colleagues as well, what are the specific supplies, what can be done? The 3D technology, as you know the FDA has gone back and forth with that, and we have to make sure these swabs are safe and that they work well, but we also got to reshore whatever we can. And then if you could help us with this fluctuating demand issue. How could that be addressed? You know, having a bunch of pop-ups is a great idea but if you don’t have the lab capacity to get the test results quickly, maybe the pop-ups, you know, ought to be more consistent and not just periodic. And in terms of personnel, I’m also hearing concerns there. I have more questions for Ms. Denning, and I will get those to her about long-term contracts. We have legislation, Ms. Denning, that we’re working on to try to get the Department of HHS but also DLA, the Defense Logistics Agency, to use longer-term contracts to provide the incentive for American-made companies to make investments to bring back this PPE and I would love to hear your views on that but I’ll ask that for the record. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”