President Donald Trump has announced that the U.S. federal government will begin distributing millions of rapid coronavirus tests to states this week and urging governors to use them to reopen schools for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The move to vastly expand U.S. testing comes as confirmed new COVID-19 cases remain elevated at more than 40,000 per day and experts warn of a likely surge in infections during the colder months ahead.
It also comes just five weeks before the November election, with Trump facing continued criticism for his handling of the crisis.
In remarks delivered in the Rose Garden, Trump said the announcement was “a massive and groundbreaking expansion in our testing capability for the China virus.”
The tests will go out to states based on their population and can be used as governors see fit, but the administration encourages states to place a priority on schools.
The Assistant Secretary for Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Admiral Brett Giroir, demonstrated the rapid test during the Rose Garden announcement.
The tests will come from a previously announced supply of 150 million ordered from Abbott. The company’s rapid test, the size of a credit card, is the first that does not require specialty computer equipment to process. It delivers results in about 15 minutes.
Rapid, convenient testing is considered essential to reopening the U.S. economy. But the effort has been plagued by problems since the earliest days of the outbreak.
First, the government lost pivotal weeks distributing, then correcting a flawed test developed by U.S. scientists. Then, for months private labs and hospitals struggled to ramp up testing capacity due to shortages of key supplies, including testing chemicals.
The issue is politically sensitive for Trump as he grapples with the pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans. For months, Trump has prodded state and local leaders to open schools this fall.
Only in the last two months has U.S. testing capacity generally exceeded demand. The government’s top testing official, Adm. Brett Giroir, told Congress last week that the nation will soon have the capacity to run 3 million tests per day, on average. The U.S. has been averaging about 900,000 tests per day, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.
Abbott’s test is an important advance because of its low cost and easy-to-use format. Until now, the vast majority of coronavirus tests had to be sent to high-grade medical laboratories for processing that typically took several days. Backlogs led to repeated delays in reporting results, especially during a summer spike in cases.
But rapid, point-of-care tests like Abbott’s have their own downsides. They are less accurate, and positive results often need to be confirmed with higher-grade lab tests. Additionally, because the tests are often performed outside the health care system, state officials have warned that many tests are going unreported. That could lead to undercounts of new cases, skewing government data needed to track the virus.