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Alexander: United States COVID-19 Testing is Impressive — Enough to Begin Going Back to Work

But millions more rapid tests created by new technologies are needed to give the rest of America enough confidence to go back to work and back to school

MARYVILLE, Tennessee, May 12, 2020 — Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said that COVID-19 testing in the United States is “impressive” and “enough to begin going back to work.”

“But millions more rapid tests created by new technologies are needed to give the rest of America enough confidence to go back to work and back to school,” Alexander added.

Alexander made his remarks today during the Senate health committee hearing — “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School” — which featured testimony from Administration officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about what federal, state and local governments are doing to help Americans go back to work and back to school as rapidly and safely as possible. 

“According to Johns Hopkins University, the United States has tested over 9 million Americans for COVID-19. That is twice as many as any other country — we don’t know what China has done — and more per capita than most countries including South Korea, which several committee members have cited as an example of a country doing testing well.”

“Here is what ‘impressive’ means in Tennessee,” Alexander continued. “First, anyone who is sick, or a first responder or a health care worker can get tested. Governor Bill Lee is also testing every prisoner, every resident and staff member of a nursing home, offered weekend drive-thru testing, and has done specific outreach to increase testing in low-income neighborhoods. A Tennessean can get a free test and a free mask at the local public health clinic. Tennessee has tested 4 percent of its population. The governor hopes to increase that to 7 percent by the end of May.

“That impressive level of testing is sufficient to begin Phase I of going back to work in Tennessee, but as I said last week, it is not nearly enough to provide confidence to 31,000 students and faculty that it is safe to return to the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus in August.

“That is where the new ‘Shark Tank’ at the National Institutes of Health that we heard about at our hearing last Thursday comes in. Swimming around in that shark tank are dozens of early stage proposals for new ways to create diagnostic tests.”

Alexander discussed how Congress gave NIH $1.5 billion and BARDA $1 billion to create and manufacture millions of more tests, with quick results like the diagnostic test the FDA authorized last week using saliva a person provides at home instead of a nose swab or blood, or an antigen test, like the ones used for flu or strep throat.

“This is a bipartisan oversight hearing to examine how well we are preparing the country to go safely back to work and to school and to determine what more we need to do,” Alexander said noting that the hearing should also explore how we improve our response now and in the fall when this virus is expected to return.

“Such an exercise sometimes encourages finger pointing. Who did what wrong? Before we spend too much time finger pointing, I would like to suggest that almost all of us — the United States and every country — underestimated this virus. Underestimated how contagious it would be. How it can travel silently without causing symptoms. How it can be especially deadly among certain segments of the population, including the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, and minority populations.”

Alexander concluded, “My preacher once said: ‘I’m not worried about you on Sunday, it’s what you do during the rest of the week.’ I’m afraid that during the rest of the week — between pandemics — we relax our focus on preparedness. We become preoccupied with other important things. Our collective memory is short. Just three months ago the country was consumed with impeaching a President. Now that seems like ancient Roman history.

“Now, while this crisis has our full attention, I believe we should put into law this year whatever improvements we need to be well prepared for the next one. If there is to be finger pointing, I hope fingers will point in that direction.

“Staying at home indefinitely is not the way to end this pandemic. There is not enough money available to help all those hurt by a closed economy. All roads back to work and back to school lead through testing, tracking, isolation, treatment, and vaccines.”

Read Chairman Alexander’s full prepared opening statement here.