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The Biden administration on Wednesday announced it is increasing COVID-19 testing by distributing 5 million free, rapid tests to K-12 schools each month in an effort to help keep them open cases of the highly transmissible omicron variant surge across the nation.
The administration’s move to increase testing and implement « test to stay » programs is in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The administration says the additional testing capacity comes on top of the CDC’s Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity program, which distributed $10 billion in resources to states to support COVID-19 testing in schools.
Officials said the CDC will work with states who can submit requests for additional tests for « high-need » school districts and noted that the first shipments of tests will be delivered later this month.
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Officials said the administration is also making available lab capacity to support an additional 5 million PCR tests per month for schools to perform « individual and pooled testing » in classrooms nationwide. The testing is set to be delivered through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Operation Expanded Testing program, which was funded thorough the American Rescue Plan to provide free PCR testing at schools.
Officials also announced that three federally funded regional providers are offering testing materials, supplies and lab results and reporting at no direct cost to recipients through four regional hubs– a service schools can « immediately gain access to. »
Meanwhile, the Biden administration also announced Wednesday that HHS and FEMA are working with state, territorial and tribal partners to address testing needs in communities and stand up federal testing sites.
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« These surge testing sites are focused on ensuring hardest-hit and highest-risk communities have equitable access to free and convenient testing, » officials said.
« Effective immediately, as the agencies review state, territorial, and tribal requests, they will consider how these sites can support the safe operations of K-12 schools. »
Officials added that « opportunities to support K12 schools may include locating federal testing units on or near school grounds; establishing specific operating hours for students, their families, and school staff; or dedicating a specific portion of daily testing to school communities. »
Last month, the CDC released guidance on « test to stay, » an approach that allows students to « remain safely in the classroom during their quarantine period as long as they wear masks and test at least two times in the seven days following an exposure. »
The « test to stay » programs, according to administration officials, « are an effective approach for identifying and containing infection at school, and help enable schools to minimize and avoid interruptions to in-person instruction. »
The White House on Wednesday also announced that Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, is joining its COVID-19 response team to oversee its testing initiatives.
Later this week, the CDC is expected to release additional materials for schools on how to implement test to stay programs, including a school checklist and frequently asked questions and answers.
The expanded testing capabilities for schools come amid a surge in cases of the omicron variant – which is infecting individuals whether they are vaccinated, boosted or not.
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But the White House has maintained that schools should remain open.
« We have been very clear, publicly and privately, that we want to see schools open, » White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, citing the massive amount of funding for schools as evidence of the administration ensuring « we were prepared and had resources needed to address whatever may come up in the pandemic. »
The Associated Press contributed to this report.