President Trump on Monday announced a plan to distribute 100 million rapid COVID-19 tests to states by the end of the year, strongly urging governors to use them to help schools reopen.
The Abbott tests, which are cheaper and faster than lab tests, return results in about 15 minutes and are already widely used in nursing homes under a program set up by the Trump administration.
“In the old days when we just started this you remember we’d go out and we’d have to find these massive laboratories with tremendously expensive equipment. Now we’re down to something that you’ll see that is really from a different planet,” Trump said at a press conference from the Rose Garden.
The Trump administration’s announcement comes as experts warn of a surge of new coronavirus cases in the fall and winter, when the cold weather drives people indoors, aiding the virus’s spread.
Already, 32 states are seeing increases in COVID-19 cases, pushing the U.S. to an average of 43,000 new cases per day — a 23 percent increase from the average just two weeks ago, according to a New York Times tracker.
The increase in cases, mainly driven by states in the Midwest and Great Plains, is likely due to multiple factors, including college campuses reopening, large gatherings, the lifting of restrictions on businesses and increased activity around Labor Day weekend.
The president didn’t specifically address the rise in new cases Monday, but stated that as the U.S. increases its testing capacity, “we will identify more cases and asymptomatic individuals in low-risk populations.”
“This should not cause undue alarm,” he said.
Experts disagree, noting that the increasing number of tests cannot fully explain the increase in COVID-19 cases.
The percent of tests coming back positive is above 5 percent in 30 states, indicating growing outbreaks, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Vice President Pence added that Americans should “anticipate that cases will rise in the days ahead,” pointing to increases in testing and the percentage of tests coming back positive, as well as rising cases in the Midwest.
“As we proved through the outbreak in the Sun Belt this summer, we’ll make sure that any community, any state that’s impacted with rising cases, any school that’s impacted will have the [protective equipment], will have the supplies, will have the medicines,” Pence said.
Still, Trump and his administration have pushed K-12 schools to reopen, arguing kids are “almost immune” to COVID-19.
“Given the extraordinary capacity that we have in testing today we expressed hope to all the governors today that they would particularly use these Abbott tests to open up American schools, and to keep them open,” Pence said.
Children are much less likely than older adults to experience serious illness from COVID-19, but they can still catch it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
According to a CDC analysis published Monday, more than 277,000 children have tested positive for COVID-19 between March 1 and Sept. 19, including more than 3,200 who required hospitalization.
The authors of the report acknowledged that is likely an undercount because kids with COVID-19 are more likely to show no symptoms of the disease and therefore unlikely to get tested. It’s still unclear what role kids play in spreading the virus to each other and adults, largely because of a lack of data.
But the report concluded that kids likely play some role.
“Recent evidence that monthly COVID-19 incidence increased approximately threefold among persons aged 0–19 years since May and was highest among young adults aged 20–29 years during July, suggests that young persons might be playing an increasingly important role in community transmission,” the authors wrote.
The new tests could be beneficial for schools, experts say.
It’s a “great start,” tweeted Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard, but “the number of tests being distributed by the [White House] is simply not sufficient.”
In a normal year, there are about 56.6 million kids enrolled in K-12 public schools in the U.S., but there is no data on how many kids are attending school in person right now.
Still, 100 million tests are unlikely to go very far for very long, Mina noted.
“[Pence] is saying the new deployment of these tests will open up America’s schools. Clearly, he hasn’t done the basic math,” he tweeted.
Mina and other public health experts have pushed the Trump administration to dramatically expand testing capacity heading into the winter by supporting the production of cheap antigen tests that can be used at home. The Abbott tests that will be sent to states need to be administered by a medical professional.
The U.S. has come a long way in improving access to testing since the early days of the pandemic when tests were much harder to come by.
More than 100 million COVID-19 tests have been completed in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
The U.S. reported 1 million COVID-19 tests completed in a single day last week, a record high for the country, the COVID Tracking Project says.
Still, that falls below where some experts say the U.S. should be to successfully contain the virus.
The total number of completed tests could be higher because states are running more rapid antigen tests but not publicly reporting the data.
Many states only report the results of lab tests, which still make up the majority of tests being run in the U.S.