A rushed attempt to get testing swabs to states this month resulted in mislabeled packaging that left those receiving the shipments confused about what had actually arrived and concerned whether they might be contaminated.
At first glance, the packaging seemed to suggest that states had received Q-tips, not test swabs, which look similar but are made of different material.
“The packaging was just strange,” a Washington state official told CNN, describing the boxes as being labeled “Comforts for Baby: Cotton Swabs.” “It would have been helpful if someone had let us know… Our warehouse people were pretty sure we got Q-tips.”
After back and forth with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and public health experts in the state, the swabs were determined to be legitimate – made of polyester and not cotton, an important distinction, the official said. The company behind the swabs also issued a letter, clarifying that the boxes contained the expected testing swabs.
“In our effort to deliver COVID-19 testing swabs as quickly as possible, for those with the greatest need, existing packaging was used,” reads a letter from US Cotton President and CEO John B. Nims and obtained by CNN. “The packaging used (comforts for baby cotton swabs), for a portion of the initial FEMA production does not accurately reflect the contents.”
Nims says in the letter that the packages contain the approved sterilized polyester spun swab, adding: “All future shipments will contain ‘blank’ inner packaging printed with lot# and date code.”
The packages are part of an effort by the administration to help bolster states’ testing capabilities. President Donald Trump announced upcoming shipments Monday.
“During the month of May, FEMA and [the Health and Human Services Department] will be delivering 12.9 million swabs to states nationwide. We already have them,” Trump said. “The delivery will be very quick. We’re prepared to provide millions of additional swabs if any state is on a pace to surpass its goal and their goals are very high.”
While welcome, packaging of testing swabs gave states pause initially. FEMA recognized the labeling blunder in a statement. “In an effort to answer our country’s call to action and expedite the production and delivery of the new spun polyester swab, US Cotton used existing packaging for its polyester swabs, which does not accurately communicate the content of each package. Going forward, the spun polyester swab packaging will be blank,” the agency said.
Jordan Abudayyeh, spokesperson for Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, told CNN that the state received several thousand swabs in the wrong boxes and remained concerned about their use moving forward since the swabs were not individually packaged.
“We opened the box and realized that the box said they were baby Q-tips,” she said. “They sent us a letter from the manufacturer assuring us that they were polyester swabs. They were just in the wrong box.”
“These swabs are mass packaged together in boxes,” she added. “And so when they’re bulk packaged like that, it poses the risk of cross contamination … these are not ideal for how we conduct testing because we usually use individually wrapped swabs that ensure there’s no cross contamination.”
States have been clamoring for additional testing supplies, particularly as they move toward re-opening. In April, the Food and Drug Administration said people may eventually be able to perform their own tests at home with a newly designed, Q-tip-style swab.
The FDA said it had worked with US Cotton to design the swabs, which are shorter than the swabs used by technicians, doctors or nurses to collect samples to test people for Covid-19 infection.
US Cotton couldn’t be reached for comment.
Pennsylvania received “over 20,000 test swabs in the last few days” and is expecting more test swabs over the coming weeks, said Nate Wardle, press secretary for Pennsylvania’s Department of Health. “There was some confusion as to what they were labeled, but they are swabs that we can use for testing, yes,” he said.
Similarly, New Mexico said it received Covid-19 testing swabs that “were incorrectly labeled, but they were in fact appropriate testing swabs.”
Abudayyeh with the Illinois governor’s office called the mislabeled shipments another example of the Trump administration wanting to “check a box and say we sent them.”
“It’s helpful for (the Trump administration) to say, ‘We sent swabs.’ But it’s more helpful if you say, ‘We sent you swabs where you can actually use and deploy right now without having to take additional steps between now and then,’” she said.