White House officials announced a new effort Wednesday to expand COVID-19 testing in schools , but they said even more more funding would be necessary to fill the need.
Through the new, $650 million effort, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will work with the Department of Defense to create “regional coordinating centers” to help boost lab capacity, members of the administration’s coronavirus response team said.
The centers will essentially serve as matchmakers, identifying labs that have the ability to process more tests and pairing them with schools and congregate facilities like homeless shelters that have unmet testing needs, said Carol Johnson, the testing coordinator for the White House response team.
“While this funding will serve only as a pilot until [President Joe Biden’s relief plan] is enacted, we want to work quickly to help get support underway in these priority settings,” she said during a Wednesday press briefing.
Public health officials have said broader testing efforts could help schools ensure safe in-person learning during the pandemic.
Some large districts, like New York City schools, regularly test random samples of students and staff to monitor for potential virus transmission in buildings and to ensure that their mitigation strategies are successful.
New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that weekly testing of students and staff can be helpful tool, especially in areas with high rates of COVID-19 in surrounding communities.
But many schools can’t afford such testing or don’t have the resources to coordinate with labs.
Johnson said the new effort will serve as “a bridge” to help meet some of those needs until Congress considers Biden’s broader relief package.
The White House announced two other related efforts Wednesday: $815 million to ramp up domestic production of testing supplies, and $200 million to help detect and trace emerging variants of the virus that may be more contagious.
The American Rescue Plan, Biden’s proposed coronavirus relief package, would provide $50 billion for a “massive expansion of testing” that would include increased use of rapid tests, expanding lab capacity to process tests faster, and aid to schools and local governments to carry out testing programs.
Schools could also spend some of the federal relief money they’ve received through previous relief bills on testing and other mitigation efforts.
The Trump administration provided 100 million rapid tests to states last year to help with efforts to reopen schools. But epidemiologists say schools need more tests conducted more frequently.
Public health experts hope ongoing development and production of rapid tests that can be processed without lab equipment will make testing efforts far more accessible for schools in the future.