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White House boosts funding for Covid tests as infections continue to surge

As in early days of a pandemic, confirming illnesses and contact tracing are critical, public health officials say.
Image: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in New York
Lindsey Leinbach takes a swab to test for the coronavirus at a One Medical testing facility in the Bronx borough of New York City on April 21, 2020.Lucas Jackson / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is accelerating investments in Covid-19 testing to combat a fourth wave of infections washing over states and regions with low vaccination rates as those rates stall and some people resist a return to mask mandates, three administration officials said.

The administration said Thursday that it is directing $1.6 billion in Covid testing to high-risk settings like prisons and homeless and domestic violence shelters, the officials said. The administration announced a $398 million boost in funding for small rural hospitals last week for testing and reducing infection.

Many Americans are eager to declare an end to the pandemic, spurning masks and vaccinations in some states and regional pockets, but public health experts and federal officials say the country is entering a period much like the beginning of the pandemic, when large-scale testing and tracing are critical.

Testing "is a key pillar of our response," particularly because some people are holding off on getting vaccinated and many children are ineligible, said Carole Johnson, the White House testing coordinator. "It's going to be really important, including as we talk to states about their surge teams."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, said Tuesday at a hearing, "Vaccination rates are plateauing, and fatigue is setting in."

Hospitalizations are up by 35 percent and deaths are up by 26 percent over the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even as testing is decreasing. Public health laboratories reported that 86,000 tests were administered in the last week of June, the most recent data available, compared to as many as 205,000 a week during the last wave of Covid, in April. In January, before vaccines were widely available, weekly tests reached 523,000, according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories. That does not include commercial and clinical labs, and Johnson said testing is increasing in surge states.

Scott Becker, chief executive of the laboratories group, said: "It's a ground war. With the number of cases and hospitalizations going up, you'd expect to see a greater degree of testing." But "we've seen a huge downturn in diagnostic testing across the country."

The Biden administration is also using billions of dollars approved by Congress to establish regional hubs to manage testing programs in schools and homeless shelters, and it sent $1.7 billion to states to assist in sequencing the evolving virus.

Much of the overall $12 billion will go toward safely reopening schools in the fall. The administration is also pushing for cheaper at-home tests that parents can use to distinguish among the flu, Covid and other respiratory illnesses that public health officials say could be rampant after a year of remote learning.

Some lawmakers want to be more aggressive, especially as the more contagious delta variant spreads and younger children remain ineligible for vaccination. Pilot programs at several schools across the country in the spring proved that it was costly and, in some cases, difficult to test staff members and children in school.

However, if the government were to issue uniform standards to test schoolchildren and contract directly with private companies for low-cost tests that could be regularly performed at home, it could be very effective, said Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., a pediatrician who has been warning for months about the need for a robust testing infrastructure.

"They at least would have the power of mass purchasing power to say here's what we want, a gazillion tests at $1 each, and the private company knows it will get paid," Schrier said.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said: "Everybody in public health recognizes that we're moving into a spot in which we had been at the beginning of the pandemic, where you need adequate testing. We're going to be testing again, and in much larger numbers."