Senate Democrats who say the Trump administration “repeatedly failed to recognize the need” for extensive coronavirus testing to fight the pandemic proposed a $30 billion plan Wednesday, arguing the country cannot open without more screening.
“Public health experts have made clear we will need to do hundreds of millions of tests if we want to reduce social distancing and safely get people back to work, back to school, and back to some semblance of normal,” said Washington’s Patty Murray, the No. 3 in Senate Democratic leadership. “For that to happen, we need testing to be fast, free, and everywhere.”
Their strategy calls on Congress to designate $30 billion in new emergency funding to bolster the availability of testing supplies and improve transparency. Some experts estimate people won’t be able to safely return to work and school without the capacity to administer nearly a half-million daily tests or a vaccine, which still could be a year away.
“We cannot safely end sheltering in place until we have testing every place,” Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said.
The Democrats hope to include the $30 billion in the next congressional coronavirus aid package, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said.
Durbin, Schumer, Murray and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the chairwoman of Democrats’ policy and communications committee, spoke on the call unveiling the proposal.
Ramped up testing could allow gradual reopening, because people who test positive for the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 illness would be more quickly isolated or quarantined. But any testing must be followed by aggressive efforts to let others know when they’ve come in contact with someone who tested positive, the senators said.
The U.S. has 600,000 COVID-19 cases and over 24,000 have died from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University. And it lags other countries when it comes to testing capacity, Stabenow said, referring to a report from her committee.
“There’s a direct correlation there,” Stabenow said.
By putting out their plan, Democrats say they hope to get the Trump administration back on track, because widespread testing “requires centralized leadership that only the Executive Branch can provide,” according to a white paper from Murray’s office.
The proposal calls on the administration to deliver a “clear, detailed plan to rapidly scale and optimize COVID-19 testing.”
“You might think a strategic plan to rapidly ramp up testing would already be put together and driving this work,” Murray said. “But since it isn’t, first and foremost, we want to require the Trump administration to develop and communicate a detailed strategic plan to rapidly scale and optimize COVID-19 testing.”
Democrats also want Congress to direct the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to compile weekly public reports on testing supply inventory and shortages.
‘It’s not the machines’
Test kit supply shortages for supplies like swabs and reagent mixtures used in test machines for analysis have created a bottleneck impeding greater testing. Part of the plan would make more testing supplies that are in critical shortages available, even using the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to produce critical supplies if needed.
“What we say to the administration, is you need to show us how you are going to get to the production that we need to have rapid tests readily available in every community,” Murray said. “I would expect they would have to use that act to get there, but if they have another way to get there show us, show us it’s real. That’s what this plan requires.”
Stabenow, whose state of Michigan has been hit hard by the pandemic, said she has been told the supplies to run the coronavirus tests are a stumbling block for greater testing.
“It’s not the machines, it’s the reagents, it’s the test kits, the other things,” Stabenow said.
The plan also calls for the establishment of a core public health infrastructure fund that reaches $4.5 billion annually to strengthen the local public health system in the United States, bolstering the nation’s ability to strengthen testing, contact tracing and targeted isolation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the increased funding, Democrats want to establish an ombudsman operated jointly by the departments of Health and Human Services and Labor to serve as a single point of contact for patients who have been unfairly charged for testing and associated services, and strengthen price-gouging policies passed in the earlier coronavirus relief bill, ensuring insurers are paying providers a fair reimbursement without being over-charged for these critical tests.
Murray stressed the importance of including a comprehensive testing strategy because it would be difficult to keep the country open without being able to tamp down small outbreaks quickly regardless of what state they occur in.
“We’re going to have to have a plan in place that tests wherever it is that we have a hotspot, to make sure that we are tracking people and keeping them at home, should this arise again which, it most likely will, until we have a vaccine,” Murray said. “So they have to do this. And that’s why we need to pass this as a law to require the administration to do it.”