U.S. schools should receive the first additional COVID-19 rapid tests being made available by the federal government in about two weeks, a White House official said, as Washington races to keep classes open amid a record-setting omicron surge.
The new tests must be ordered through state governments, but the White House is also making available lab capacity to support five million monthly PCR tests that schools can order themselves if their states are not being helpful, the official said. Those should arrive in seven to 10 days.
The Biden administration on Wednesday announced a new set of measures to keep classes open, including doubling COVID-19 testing capacity in schools with 10 million more tests, as the omicron variant spreads rapidly through the United States.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in the United States have increased by about 33% and deaths are up by about 40% from a week earlier, Rochelle Walensky, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said on Wednesday.
The Biden administration has urged states to spend $10 billion in resources distributed to them for testing under coronavirus legislation signed into law last year, although some have been slow to disburse the funds, the official said.
Education sources said some school districts in states such as Pennsylvania, Texas, and elsewhere have struggled to get access to tests, partly due to differences over safety protocols, as well as supply constraints.
"We don't want any state to stand in the way. Period," said the official, adding the administration would find other ways to provide resources to schools if they ran into trouble with their state governments.
"We've been really trying hard to make sure that everyone knows all the resources that are available to them right now," the official said.
The U.S. Department of Education last year provided grant funding to a Florida school district that had state funds withheld because it mandated students wear masks in defiance of the Republican governor's ban on such mandates.
The issue of school closures has remained politicized and contentious, but the White House says nearly 96% of schools nationwide held in-person classes this month, up from 46% of schools in January 2021.
The official said the extra rapid tests would come from a "dedicated portion" of an existing contract, and sufficient capacity would be available given contracts the administration is now signing to procure 500 million rapid tests.
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