The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it would provide schools with 10 million Covid-19 tests every month as it urges districts to keep classrooms open amid a widespread shortage of testing kits.
The White House said it would distribute 5 million rapid tests to schools every month as well as make an additional 5 million PCR tests available through a Department of Health and Human Services program that collects samples and sends them to labs.
"The president is clear: The nation's schools can and should be open. And we have given state and local leaders the resources to ensure they can be open," White House Covid coordinator Jeff Zients said at the administration Covid briefing.
Students are returning from winter break and case numbers are surging across the country, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. The spike in cases has created disruptions in many school systems. Some started 2022 by switching to remote learning or delaying openings.
The testing push in schools comes as the country is seeing an unprecedented rise in infections that risks overwhelming the nation's already stretched hospitals, said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. While data suggests people are less likely to get severely ill from omicron, especially if they are vaccinated, Walensky said the sheer number of cases is driving up hospitalizations, which rose 33 percent in the last week.
"The sudden and steep rise in cases due to omicron is resulting in unprecedented daily case counts, sickness, absenteeism, and strains on our health care system," Walensky said. "The risk of hospitalization remains low, especially among people who are up to date on their Covid vaccines. However, the staggering rise in cases, over 1 million new cases each day, has led to a high number of total hospitalizations."
The surge in cases has left some schools without enough staff, and others struggling to get enough tests.
Chicago’s public schools canceled classes for four days after the teachers union voted to go remote, in part over disputes involving Covid testing. The union and the school district reached a deal this week that will return students to classrooms on Wednesday.
In Clark County, Nevada, which covers Las Vegas, the school district announced a “five-day pause” Tuesday, citing “extreme staffing shortages" based on the high number of positive Covid cases.
The Biden administration said Wednesday that efforts to run federal surge testing sites in hard-hit areas will also now look at how the programs can support schools.
Testing capacity has been strained in areas hit hardest by the omicron wave, with some patients standing in lines for hours to get a laboratory test, then waiting days for the results. Rapid at-home tests have been in high demand, with many retailers saying they can't keep them in stock.
The White House said Wednesday that it has brought on a new testing czar in recent weeks, Tom Inglesby, who was director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, to work on improving access to testing.
The White House said the Education Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will help support schools that want to set up testing programs, including how to gain access to federal funds.
The White House recently said it would buy 500 million at-home tests to be mailed to people, who could request them through a government-run website. Last week, the administration said it had finalized its first contracts related to those tests.
More recently, the administration said it would mandate that insurance companies and group health plans cover the cost of eight counter at-home tests per person each month starting Saturday. At the same time, manufacturers have struggled to meet demand.