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Victoria Knight
By Victoria Knight January 22, 2021

Biden establishes a national COVID testing board and lays out national strategy

Public health experts agree that one key to stopping the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is significantly increasing testing.

President Joe Biden has said he will do so. In the run-up to his election, his campaign website promised he would "double the number of drive-through testing sites, invest in next-generation testing, including at home tests and instant tests, so we can scale up our testing capacity by orders of magnitude." The White House website now lists the same promises. 

Part of the reason widespread testing is important is because it could catch more asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. If those cases were caught early and individuals were able to isolate and stay home, that would prevent further transmission of the virus in communities. It could also identify hotspots across the country and allow local leaders to implement disease mitigation measures if necessary. 

"Being able to identify areas where it's transmitting more than others, this is really important for managing a national response," said Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, in a Jan. 12 interview. 

Biden started making moves toward fulfilling his pledge to increase testing on Jan. 21 — his first full day in office — when he signed an executive order to establish a national pandemic testing board. The president likens this board to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's War Production Board that produced military supplies for World War II, including aircraft, tanks and firearms.

Jeff Zients, the White House's COVID-19 response coordinator, will chair the national pandemic testing board. Zients is an Obama-era official who oversaw fixing the government's rollout of healthcare.gov, the website for the Affordable Care Act's marketplace plans. 

The national pandemic testing board will coordinate the federal government's efforts to promote testing, and will provide recommendations to Biden on how the government can support states and territories in expanding testing. The board is also tasked with identifying any barriers to testing among priority populations, high-risk groups or communities that might be experiencing a test shortage. Biden's order also called for surveillance testing in schools to be supported by federal agencies. 

The order also says cabinet secretaries and the COVID-19 response coordinator will work towards making COVID-19 testing free for those who lack insurance. And for those who have insurance, the order designates these same entities to make sure tests are covered. 

Finally, the order established the creation of the U.S. Public Health Job Corps, which will train workers for jobs in testing, contact tracing and vaccination clinics. 

Another executive order Biden signed on Jan. 21 said his administration would use all legal authority, including the Defense Production Act, to assess and fill any supply shortfalls for testing, vaccination or PPE supplies.

These orders came down the same day the White House issued a national COVID-19 response plan, which included a section on mitigating spread through expanding testing. The plan said the federal government will increase the supply of rapid tests, enhance laboratory capacity and conduct better surveillance to watch for hotspots and COVID-19 variants. The Biden administration will also set up a testing support team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which will work to ensure tests are widely available, including at-home tests and rapid tests. 

These steps by the Biden administration to increase COVID-19 testing have the potential to make a substantial difference, said Jennifer Kates, director of global health & HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF). 

"What has been missing is a national strategy with the federal government leading on overseeing testing supply and access; instead, testing has been left up to the states," Kates wrote in an email. 

The challenging part now, Kates said, is figuring out what's going on with testing and where it's lagging in every state, city and county. 

"The next step is to get a handle on what is actually happening and quickly," Kates wrote. "They need to assess testing capacity across the country and be ready to help fix gaps and problems.  This is definitely the harder part!" 

While the Biden administration's release of plans and executive orders during his first week in office offer the beginning steps toward increasing COVID-19 testing, there is much more action that must actually be taken before those promises result in more testing across-the-board.

We rate this promise In the Works. 

 

Our Sources

Archived JoeBiden.com, COVID-19, Accessed Jan. 22, 2021

Email interview with Jennifer Kates, Director of Global Health & HIV Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, Jan. 22, 2021 

Phone interview with Jeff Schlegelmilch, Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, Jan. 12, 2021

The White House, Priorities - COVID-19, Accessed Jan. 22, 2021 

The White House, National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on Establishing the COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board and Ensuring a Sustainable Public Health Workforce for COVID-19 and Other Biological Threats, Jan. 21, 2021

The White House, Executive Order on a Sustainable Public Health Supply Chain, Jan. 21, 2021

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