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Biden Announced A $12 Billion Plan For COVID-19 Testing In Schools, A Pricey Endeavor

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Biden administration has announced it will invest $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan to expand coronavirus testing in schools. The aim is to help bring kids back to the classroom safely. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us with more.

Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good to be here, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK. So vaccines are not approved, as we know, for children under the age of 16. And yet, many schools are opening back up. How is this new testing initiative part of the whole plan to get more schools reopened?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, you know, there's a lot of evidence that schools don't drive transmission of the virus, but they do mirror what is happening in communities. So if there's a lot of virus circulating in your community, there will likely be cases in schools, too. And given just how much asymptomatic spread there is of the virus, it's really hard to identify and stop the spread without some kind of routine testing or screening. Carole Johnson is the Biden administration's national testing coordinator, and she spoke about the new screening initiative at the White House briefing today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS BRIEFING)

CAROLE JOHNSON: With this funding for testing, every state in America will have access to millions of dollars to set up screening testing programs to add a layer of protection for schools, teachers and students.

AUBREY: Now, Mary Louise, it's not exactly clear which test will be used. It seems with some CDC guidance, state and local health departments will determine the best test options and strategies for their districts, and it will likely vary from place to place. But Johnson says there will be resources available in every state.

KELLY: Is there an example of a state that's already doing this, that's already using testing in schools, has a program up and running?

AUBREY: Yeah. I mean, one place to look is Massachusetts. The strategy in place in schools across the state is called pooled testing. So once or twice a week, students who have returned to school do a quick self-nasal swab. Stations are set up in the hallway or cafeteria. And instead of analyzing each swab separately, about 10 swabs are combined or pooled into one test. This allows them to screen everybody faster and more affordably. I spoke to Judy Styer at the Framingham Public Schools. They're using this method, and she says it's been beneficial so far. They have identified some cases.

JUDY STYER: So the value of pooled testing is that it helps us to identify asymptomatic students early, and that prevents the spread. So once we know who the student is, we can immediately put our contact tracers into play.

AUBREY: Now, if there is a positive, they do have to test everyone in the pool to determine who is positive, but then they can quickly identify close contacts, figure out who needs to stay home. A company called CIC Health runs the testing initiative there. And it's programs like this one that could be scaled up across the country given the new funding announced today.

KELLY: Allison, is there enough testing capacity? Are there enough tests, period, to pull this off nationwide?

AUBREY: You know, there is certainly a need for more tests. There are lots of tests in the pipeline that have not yet been authorized by the FDA, especially quick turnaround tests. And this - and so this week, the FDA has provided new recommendations to the companies that are developing these tests to help streamline this path towards emergency use authorization. So this is key. In addition, the administration announced an investment to increase domestic manufacturing of testing supplies and raw materials.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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