Congress is close to finishing its third legislative package to assist in the coronavirus response. It’s imperative that as soon as this package is complete, we immediately turn to dramatically increasing our coronavirus testing capacity, which will help us address both the health and economic impacts of this crisis.
I’ve outlined some ideas to consider as we move toward this long overdue goal.
Widespread diagnostic testing is necessary to control coronavirus — as we’ve seen, countries that instituted widespread testing early on have thus far stemmed the spread of COVID-19 and aided their economies by getting healthy people back to work. South Korea, for example, developed an expansive testing system. As a result, it has been able to track, isolate, and quarantine infected people without shuttering its cities or forcing its citizens to stay inside.
It’s no secret that the U.S. missed its chance to control COVID-19 through early testing. The Trump Administration profoundly mishandled its coronavirus response, leaving public health officials without diagnostic tests in the early days of the pandemic. Public and private labs are racing to catch up: in recent days, the FDA approved its first point-of-care diagnostic test, while commercial behemoths like Roche, LabCorps, and Quest have launched their own diagnostics. Academic labs in Massachusetts are joining the fight, too. But states still don’t have diagnostics they need — forcing many to ration their tests and forego aggressive efforts to contain the virus. Meanwhile, without tests, medical workers and first responders that have been exposed to the virus, but that have not actually contracted it, cannot be tested — causing shortages of medical workers when exposed individuals are forced to quarantine.
President Trump says he wants to prematurely send people back to work, but the government cannot demand that workers report for duty without first guaranteeing their safety. Public health experts have made clear we need to maintain protections like social distancing until the testing and supply shortage is addressed. We need more tests to know who is safe to go back to work and not spread the virus to people around them. Exposing more people to the virus and causing them to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 is a moral failure as well as an economic one.
Congress must take additional steps to get our public labs and companies the resources they need to ramp up production, and fast. To test at scale, we need more medical supplies. We need more lab capacity — and laboratory materials. And, we need more people.
Congress must force the President to utilize the Defense Production Act (DPA) to spur the development and allocation of tests, the raw materials necessary to produce those tests, and the protective equipment necessary for health care professionals to administer them. The Trump Administration recently said it would use the DPA to make 60,000 test kits, and the legislative package just passed by the Senate allocates $1 billion for COVID-19 DPA purchases. But the President has been unconscionably slow to utilize his DPA authorities. That is why Congress must ensure that he utilizes these new funds, follows through in his commitment, and builds on it. A country of nearly 330 million people needs more than 60,000 tests. And in order to produce and conduct tests, scientists also need things like cotton swabs, chemical reagents, and RNA extraction kits — all materials that are in shortage as labs produce more tests. To administer COVID-19 diagnostics, frontline workers must have access to protective equipment — like masks and gloves — to keep them safe from infection. Those materials are also in shortage, putting health care workers at huge risk and forcing medical facilities to forego mass testing in order to conserve supplies. The Administration must use the DPA to produce these materials, too, and to ensure that they get to states that need them.
If the President won’t fully-utilize the DPA on his own to produce these critical supplies, I’ve signed onto a bill from Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) that Congress could pass tomorrow to require the Trump Administration to act. And Congress can ensure that the President, beyond the $1 billion allocated yesterday, has the funds he needs to do so.
Congress can also put aside more designated funding for specific priorities that would break the testing logjam.
First, Congress should immediately develop a dedicated coronavirus test fund to issue guaranteed contracts to public and private diagnostic manufacturers, keeping them solvent as they boost capacity. We must also provide grants to public health labs and doctors’ offices — which are often strapped for cash — so that they can purchase testing equipment. Congress has provided entities like the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advance Research and Development Authority with supplemental funding to support public and private sector development of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and preparedness needs, but testing must compete with other priorities funded by these dollars and Congress has yet to establish a fund solely dedicated to diagnostics for COVID-19. As Congress funds diagnostics, it should prioritize both RNA tests, which can help immediately identify infected people, and antibody tests, which can tell us who is immune to the virus and can head back into their communities.
Next, Congress should take immediate steps to boost the number of medical workers able to perform diagnostic tests. It should provide the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps with the funds to hire and train temporary workers to administer tests. In addition to hiring doctors, nurses, and public health professionals, it should hire workers who can receive on-the-job training to complete tasks that don’t require medical degrees. The government should prioritize the hiring of people temporarily out of work due to COVID-19.
Finally, Congress must increase diagnostic testing transparency. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should be required to report the demographic information of individuals tested for COVID-19 to make sure resources are being distributed equitably. And Congress should force private and public manufacturers to provide daily updates to HHS on their testing capacity, raw materials, and other resources — ensuring that our federal response is based on an accurate, up-to-date understanding of our testing resources. Our federal response has been dogged by consistent confusion over our national testing capacity — including the number of people tested and their locations. Without this information, it’s impossible to know whether resources are going to the people who need them most, or whether we are leaving rural, underserved, or minority communities behind in our response.
As Congress takes these steps to boost capacity, it must continue to make sure that COVID-19 tests and treatment are free and accessible to everyone in America — no matter their income-level, race, or zip code.
These problems are real — but they are not insurmountable. Congress can take action right now to alleviate them. To turn the tide of this pandemic, we need information. We need diagnostics. And we need Congress to immediately step up and help provide them.