An agreement to bring 500,000 South Korean-made COVID-19 tests to the state was announced Monday, but the tests will not be immediately available for residents.
The tests, billed as a potential lifesaver for thousands of Maryland residents, began arriving as part of what Gov. Larry Hogan dubbed “Operation Enduring Friendship” that began nearly a month ago as a phone call between Korean government officials, the governor and his wife, Yumi, a Korean immigrant.
Hogan touted the large number of tests, saying it was as equal to the number of tests already administered by “four of the top five states.”
“It’s a huge step in the right direction, but it’s not the end of it though,” said Hogan. “We’re still searching.”
Hogan has said a robust testing program is needed as part of any plan to begin lifting restrictions put in place to mitigate the spread of the sometimes deadly upper respiratory disease. Those orders, which have shuttered the vast majority of businesses, also have severely impacted the state’s economy, at least in the short term, and forced in short order nearly 300,000 residents into unemployment in less than a month.
The kits give the state a capacity of 500,000 tests at a cost of about $9 million, officials said.
The governor recently announced he’d like to have the ability to handle 10,000 tests per day. Currently, the state is averaging about 3,000. On Monday, he upped that earlier goal, which he acknowledged was ambitious.
“Ten thousand was a very aggressive goal but having — and they’re going to get mad at me for saying this — but I’m going to try to blow through that and do maybe 200% of what the aggressive goal was and try to get up to 20,000 tests a day.”
The testing kits from Korea, 5,000 of which arrived in a shipment Saturday, will help Hogan toward that goal when they finally are able to be used.
Hogan acknowledged there will be some initial limitations.
“They don’t have everything that is needed,” said Hogan. “It’s a very complex set of things that goes into the testing.”
Included in that is lab capability, nasal swabs and chemicals for the tests.
“They all have to kind of work together,” said Hogan. “As I understand it there’s about nine steps involved in the process.”
Hogan said some of the material is being acquired from two companies in Korea.
“Other things we have acquired and or are acquiring from the federal government and from other sources here in the U.S., but it’s going to take a while to ramp up all of the things that we need to utilize all of the tests,” said Hogan.
Hogan and other governors have been scrambling for tests and other equipment since the disease appeared in the United States. And while he has has praised the federal government for some help, Hogan has said more was required and expressed a willingness to go out on his own and search for what was needed in Maryland.
“The administration made it clear over and over again that they want the states to take the lead and we have to go out and do it ourselves,” said Hogan. “So that’s exactly what we did.”
In recent weeks, the federal government has intercepted shipments of supplies needed by states. Hogan said that was a concern as the plane from South Korea was making its way to Maryland.
“It was a concern for us and we were just happy to have successfully landed that plane at BWI (Thurgood Marshall International Airport),” said Hogan. “I don’t want to get into all the details of how that came about but it was a big part of our concern.”
As part of a confidential initiative called “Operation Enduring Friendship,” which began March 28, Maryland procured tests from a company called LabGenomics, which is based in Seongnam, outside of Seoul, in South Korea.
Hogan said he asked his wife Yumi to join him on that March Saturday call with South Korea’s ambassador to the United States.
“We spoke of the special relationship between Maryland and the Republic of Korea, and we made a personal plea in Korean, asking for their assistance,” said Hogan.
The call set in motion 22 days of vetting, testing and negotiations and included late-night and early morning calls with officials in Korea.
“Sometimes it seemed like all night, working through 13-hour time difference and a language barrier,” Hogan said describing the phone calls.
On Saturday, a chartered Korean Airlines flight brought the 5,000 test kits to BWI, marking the first time a Korean Airlines plane landed at BWI, Hogan said.
The passenger plane laden with a payload of COVID-19 test kits was greeted by Hogan and his wife.
Yumi Hogan is the first Korean-born first lady of any U.S. state and is a well-known figure in her former country. She has been the subject of coverage by news outlets from that country.
“It’s why we have and are so proud to have such a special bond with South Korea,” said Hogan.
“Let me just say that after ‘Operation Enduring Friendship,’ the people of Maryland owe an incredible debt of gratitude to the people of South Korea,” said Hogan.
In February, Hogan and his wife worked with the South Korean ambassador on a reception at his residence for U.S. governor as part of a National Governors Association meeting. During the event, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in a video message, expressed pride in Yumi Hogan and referred to her husband as a son-in-law to the Korean people.
“I considered it quite an honor for him to say that that night,” said Hogan. “I had no idea just how much that that would truly come to mean these two very long months later.”