Technical assistance

Senators grill Biden officials over challenges of schools’ COVID testing


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Although President Joe Biden’s administration has identified regular COVID-19 testing as a strategy to help reopen schools safely, administrators are still struggling to find the supplies and staff needed to carry them out, US senators told two cabinet officials on Thursday.

As members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Work and Pensions differed on approaches to vaccination mandates and student masking policies, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed their concern about the challenges of regular testing to US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Health and Human Services. Secretary Xavier Becerra.

“It’s the one thing everyone on this committee can agree on,” said Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va. “Everyone here thinks there should be a lot of testing and it should be cheap. “

While some European countries sell rapid COVID-19 tests for as little as a dollar in grocery stores, Americans are paying a lot more for home tests, he said.

And, despite federal financial assistance including $ 10 billion for school testing strategies, many administrators struggle to find enough rapid test kits to test students as often as they have deemed necessary to limit the risk of transmission in their buildings, said Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

“Having access to federal funding doesn’t necessarily mean you can find these tests,” she said. “You have to know that right now there is a real crush on being able to get the tests that can get the results in time to make a difference. “

Becerra assured senators that the administration was working to resolve supply issues, and Cardona said the Education Department had made efforts to highlight “best practices,” including strategies for successful school test.

“We saw the rise [of interest in testing] over the past two months, and Delta has really been the driving force behind it, ”Becerra said of the more contagious COVID-19 variant.

COVID-19 testing at school is a key Biden strategy

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools located in areas deemed to be at “high” or “significant” risk of transmission, which is most of the country, conduct COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated students and staff at least once a week in order to ” isolate possible cases and monitor the success of their mitigation strategies.

Schools use the tests for a variety of purposes, including regularly screening athletes, monitoring those who may have been exposed to infected classmates, and taking samples from students taking turns to prevent possible spread.

Familiarize yourself with COVID testing at school

In a Sept. 9 address, Biden included school testing as a key strategy in a six-part plan to deal with a wave of the Delta variant. The plan provided few details on how authorities would help schools step up their testing efforts, saying only that federal agencies “will continue to provide assistance to schools to speed up testing programs in all areas. schools “.

Biden also announced an agreement with major retailers to sell rapid in-home COVID-19 tests at cost for a three-month window to help families monitor their risk. And he said he would use the Defense Production Act to increase the production of test kits.

“I will mobilize the American industry to procure nearly 300 million faster COVID-19 tests to distribute across the country, including to schools that need them,” he said at a college in Washington, DC, September 10.

Delta variant drives demand for testing

But senators said families and frontline educators still struggle to find supplies. Murkowski, whose state currently has the highest virus transmission rates in the country, said she feared supply would become a bigger issue after the Labor Department implements a new federal rule that requires employers with more than 100 workers to regularly test unvaccinated employees.

Federal officials believe there is an adequate supply of tests, Becerra said, but growing demand for certain types of tests in sensitive areas has caused distribution issues that have made it difficult to get the kits to the right place in the country. good time.

Biden’s plan to tackle the Delta variant

Health officials are working with industry groups to “anticipate demand” and with officials on the ground to direct supplies, he said.

“It’s one of those things where we have to work in close partnership with our national and local teams to make sure we coordinate well,” he said.

Schools also reported difficulties recruiting staff such as bus drivers, food workers and school nurses. This can make it more difficult to find employees to help with regular testing, Senators said.

Cardona and Becerra said their agencies will provide technical assistance to schools to inform their strategies. Cardona said testing, masking and encouraging vaccinations was key to ensuring students can learn safely in person.

“Our schools need to be safe for learning, and we need to make sure that we communicate what we’re doing to keep students safe,” the education secretary said. “It is our responsibility to follow the science. “

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have stressed that testing alone is not enough to keep schools safe. Students need layers of precautions, including masks and proper ventilation, to reduce the risk of transmission, they said.

Support for local student vaccination mandates

Senators also pressured cabinet members over vaccine requirements for students.

While federal officials are on the verge of likely approving a COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 5, some policymakers have discussed the possibility of requiring inoculation for school attendance.

A handful of great neighborhoods, including Los Angeles Unified, have already set such requirements for students aged 12 and over, who are currently eligible for vaccination.

Both Cardona and Becerra have said they support local decisions to require vaccines, but those decisions are not within the purview of the federal government.

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