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Aid bill to fund virus testing as debate over closures rolls on

Agreement comes as lawmakers, governors urge federal government to play bigger role in coordinating a testing strategy

Registered nurses demonstrate in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, where they read aloud names of health care providers who died after contracting COVID-19 as a result of treating infected patients.
Registered nurses demonstrate in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, where they read aloud names of health care providers who died after contracting COVID-19 as a result of treating infected patients. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate on Tuesday passed a pandemic aid package that would, among other things, provide $25 billion to increase the availability of COVID-19 tests across the country.

Lawmakers and experts say increased testing capacity is needed to lift social distancing restrictions and begin a return to normal life amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Senate Democrats pushed for the package to include provisions to build up a nationwide testing strategy.

The agreement comes as lawmakers and governors from both parties urge the federal government to play a bigger role in coordinating a testing strategy as local officials consider how and when to lift the economic and social restrictions that kept many Americans at home for the last several weeks.

Experts say that being able to test for new cases and quickly isolate those who are positive and those they have interacted with would be crucial to avoid a second wave of COVID-19 cases.

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A summary of the bill says the measure would provide $25 billion for testing, $11 billion of which would go directly to states. The remaining $14 billion would go toward federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and the National Institutes of Health to support research, development and deployment of tests.

Some of the funding distributed to states would be allocated based on the Public Health Emergency Preparedness grant formula, while $4.25 billion would be distributed based on the relative number of COVID-19 cases in a given area. Another $750 million would be distributed through the Indian Health Service.

Up to $1 billion could be used to cover the cost of testing uninsured patients for the virus.

President Donald Trump argued in a press briefing Monday that across the country, states have the capacity to conduct enough tests to allow them to contain and monitor outbreaks in the first phase of the administration’s guidance to reopen parts of the country.

Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said that while there are tests available in the marketplace, there have been shortages of materials needed to conduct the tests, such as swabs, and challenges with the transport media that helps preserve specimens.

The administration would distribute a list of federal lab sites that states could use for testing, he said. Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted that using the federal labs would help the state better utilize the half a million tests it obtained from South Korea over the weekend. Hogan got the tests without White House assistance.

Several companies have announced plans to develop their own tests related to the virus. On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency authorization for LabCorp’s at-home swab test, the first diagnostic test that patients can use at home to determine if they have the virus. The company said it would first make the tests available to frontline emergency workers. 

Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Roy Blunt of Missouri wrote in a Monday night op-ed that the government should set up a “Shark Tank”-like competition to produce tens of millions of diagnostic tests by August. 

Alexander, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Blunt, the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee overseeing public health funding, said Congress should provide $1 billion for the National Institutes of Health to work with BARDA to set up a competition and work with private partners to vet potential technologies for increased testing.

“By incorporating a shark tank environment in government research, we can more quickly develop the necessary technologies to get more tests into circulation,” they wrote.

The call by Alexander and Blunt for increasing testing echo those from epidemiologists and other public health experts who say more testing is needed before they would advise lifting the current economic and social restrictions.

Caroline Buckee, the associate director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said Tuesday in a discussion with other Harvard public health experts that she “wouldn’t be considering opening up society until I had testing in place.”

State and federal officials have gone back and forth on where the responsibility for testing lies. New York Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said that while the state should be responsible for testing and contact tracing for new cases, states will need additional federal support.

Thomas Denny, the chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, said at a press briefing on testing issues that federal financial support would be necessary, but that local public health organizations would be best suited to conduct the testing.

“There needs to be a strong national component of support. This is going to be costly,” he said. “I do believe at the end of the day, the testing part of it has to be very local. You go into each local community and you work with your public health teams and you try to identify those within each setting, who are at the most risk, and work out in rings.”

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