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Will a Big Federal Shipment of Rapid COVID-19 Tests Help Keep Schools Open?

By Evie Blad — September 28, 2020 5 min read
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The Trump administration hopes governors will use 100 million rapid COVID-19 tests to help reopen schools and keep them open for in-person learning as the nation continues to confront the pandemic.

Federal officials announced plans Monday to distribute 100 million point-of-care coronavirus tests to states and territories, starting with a shipment of 6.5 million tests this week. Governors can use the tests as they see fit, President Donald Trump said at the White House, but officials hope they will use them to “reopen their schools and their economies immediately, as fast as they can,” he said.

States could use the tests to screen teachers for the virus, helping schools to stay open and helping parents return to work, Trump said.

An additional 50 million tests will go to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and to nursing homes. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services previously announced the plan to spend $760 million on the massive shipment of tests from Abbott in August, the day after the company received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

State leaders and public health officials hope faster test results will cut down on lag time, allowing them to be more agile in making public health decisions related to the operations of businesses and schools. Rather than waiting days for a laboratory-processed test, users will get results in minutes.

The plan comes as virus rates start to tick up in some areas, provoking fears about a “second wave.”

But will it be enough to reopen schools, or to keep them open in areas with climbing cases?

What makes this COVID-19 test different?

The tests that will be shipped to states—calledAbbott BinaxNOW tests—are faster, easier to use, and more efficient than the more common tests used at consumer testing sites around the country, said Admiral Brett Giroir, who is coordinating federal testing efforts.

Giroir demonstrated the test at the White House event Monday by rubbing a swab first on the inside of his nostrils and then on credit card-sized piece of cardboard that he said would provide results within 15 minutes. It also appears to be more accurate than previous generations of rapid tests, Science Magazine reports.

“This is not a home test, but during a health emergency, [Medicaid officials] have allowed [test administrators] to operate in temporary sites like schools, or churches, or parking lots,” he said.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who attended the White House press event, said the plan would allow his state “to have testing available for our teachers every single day going forward,” helping to keep schools open. He sat next to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who attended the event and has joined the Trump administration’s aggressive push to pressure schools to reopen for in-person learning.

“The thing that we know is that kids learn better in the classroom ... than when they are doing distance learning,” Reeves said.

The announcement comes weeks before the presidential election and as Trump faces ongoing criticism for his response to the pandemic, including lags in scaling up an effective federal testing and supply strategy.

Is 100 million tests enough to open schools?

Michael Mina, a Harvard University epidemiologist who has advocated for the expansion of rapid virus testing, said on Twitter Monday that the number of tests federal officials plan to distribute is “nowhere near what’s needed” to test on the level Trump has touted.

“This is not near the type of rapid test volume that is needed to make a major impact,” he said. “Instead the federal government CAN take responsibility and take ownership of testing, instead of simply purchasing what’s available. The [White House] needs to take a leadership role and actually oversee these tests at a volume that can in fact live up to Trump’s (false) hype.”

Before the announcement, Trump administration officials spoke on background to the Associated Press.

“The Abbott Laboratories tests would allow teachers, for example, to be tested on a weekly basis, or for parents to know whether their symptomatic child has COVID-19, the official said,” according to the AP. “In some cases, states could undertake some baseline surveillance, like testing a proportion of students per week or per month to make sure that the incidence of COVID-19 is low.”

But there are about 50.8 million students enrolled in U.S. public schools and about 3.2 million full-time teachers, according to the most recent federal data. That means the reach of the tests may be limited, depending on how state leaders and local health officials plan to incorporate them into mitigation strategies. The federal plan calls for tests to be allotted proportionate to a state or territory’s population.

State officials have also warned that rapid tests performed outside of the health-care system may lead to flawed data necessary to track the virus if their results aren’t properly reported, the AP reports.

Trump administration sends mixed messages on testing.

The news of new testing options that may effect schools come after months of mixed messages on the issue.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and chair of the Senate education committee, has said “all roads back to work and school lead through testing.” But Trump has blamed climbing virus cases on tests and has tried to downplay their importance.

Public health officials have said testing can be important both for surveillance of populations, like a university student body, and for tracking asymptomatic spread of the virus, through which students, who are at a lower risk for severe illness, can pass it to more vulnerable populations without realizing it.

In July guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not recommend universal testing of all students and staff in K-12 schools.

“Universal SARS-CoV-2 testing of all students and staff in school settings has not been systematically studied,” the CDC says. “It is not known if testing in school settings provides any additional reduction in person-to-person transmission of the virus beyond what would be expected with implementation of other infection preventive measures (e.g., social distancing, cloth face covering, hand washing, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting). Therefore, CDC does not recommend universal testing of all students and staff.”

But more readily available rapid tests could be used in more targeted ways, public health officials have said.

Photo: Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, demonstrates a new fast result COVID-19 test during a event at the White House Monday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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