WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised so-called "pool testing" for Covid-19 to broaden checks for the coronavirus using fewer testing resources, as the number of coronavirus deaths in the country neared 140,000 on Saturday (July 18).
Quest Diagnostics will be able to test samples containing as many as four individual swab specimens, the agency said on Saturday (July 18) in an emergency-use authorisation.
The samples collected are then tested in a pool or "batch" using one Covid-19 test, rather than running each individual sample through its own test.
If the pool is positive it means that one or more of the individuals tested may be infected, so each of the samples in that pool is then tested again, individually.
The authorisation "is an important step forward in getting more Covid-19 tests to more Americans more quickly while preserving testing supplies," FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement.
"Sample pooling becomes especially important as infection rates decline and we begin testing larger portions of the population," Hahn said.
Chinese officials used pool testing to quickly test vast numbers of people in Beijing and Wuhan earlier this year.
White House coronavirus task force members Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx have both spoken in favour of pool testing as a way to ramp up the number of tests that can be performed.
"Pooling would give us the capacity to go from a half a million tests a day to potentially 5 million individuals tested per day," Birx told an American Society for Microbiology virtual conference in June, according to the health news site Stat.
Quest's test was originally authorised in March for use with individual samples and remains authorised for that purpose, the FDA said.
The approval came as the number of deaths from the novel coronavirus almost reaches 140,000 on Saturday as cases continued to climb in 43 out of 50 states over the past two weeks, according to a Reuters tally.
The country, which has the world's highest number of Covid-19 cases, recorded 74,710 new infections on the same day, according to its Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Since late June, the United States has seen a resurgence in new cases and now, six weeks later, deaths have also begun rising, according to a weekly Reuters analysis of state and county data.
America is losing about 5,000 people to the virus every week.
By contrast, neighbouring Canada has reported total deaths of 8,800 since the pandemic started.
In just one week, the United States records about as many deaths as the 5,600 lives Sweden has lost since the pandemic began earlier this year.
In the hardest-hit US counties, officials are running out of places to store bodies as their morgues fill up.
Arizona's Maricopa County, home to the state's largest city, Phoenix, is bringing in 14 coolers to hold up to 280 bodies and more than double morgue capacity ahead of an expected surge in coronavirus fatalities, officials said on Thursday.
In Texas, the city of San Antonio and Bexar County have acquired five refrigerated trailers to store up to 180 bodies.
The appearance of such mobile morgues has fed the sense in some Southern states that the pandemic appears to be spinning out of control.
Texas reported 10,158 new cases of Covid-19 marked its fifth consecutive day of virus cases over 10,000. The state now has a total to 317,730 confirmed cases of the virus with 3,865 deaths.
Arizona reported a 147 new deaths on Saturday, a record single-day increase as the total number of fatalities rose to 2,730, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported.
California reported 9,199 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday, above the 14-day average of 8,475. The number of deaths there climbed by 120 to 7,595.
In New York and Florida, cases seem to have stabilised.
New cases in Florida dropped for a second day, as did deaths.
The state reported 10,328 cases, a 3.2 per cent increase compared to the weekly daily average rise of 4.3 per cent and a second consecutive slowdown. It also reported 90 more deaths among residents after hitting a record 156 deaths on Thursday.
In New York, 754 new infections were recorded on Saturday , in line with daily increases that have remained relatively steady for the last month, and hospitalisations remained at a four-month low.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said another 11 people died, compared to 10 on Friday.
But news report of large crowds, late-night parties and little social distancing in New York City suggest some residents might have become complacent.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was criticised early on for the his delayed response to fight the pandemic, said he would step up enforcement on bars and restaurants in an area of Queens.
"This is unacceptable," the mayor tweeted in reaction to a Fox 5 report from the Astoria section.
"New Yorkers have made too many sacrifices to fight Covid-19. We can't let up now."
Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo said bars and restaurants would be subject to additional restrictions and tougher penalties, including a ban on stand-up bar service.