HHS deploys Abbott’s new coronavirus tests to states hit by wildfires, hurricanes

The federal government is deploying extra coronavirus testing materials, including Abbott’s new rapid test kits, to areas of the country recently hit hard by natural disasters, Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir said Tuesday.

Hurricane Laura in Louisiana and the wildfires on the West Coast have prompted the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. 

“We will be working with Abbott on training, communication and numerous other implementation details, but we are prioritizing, as early as today, the very first shipments to areas of natural disasters, including Louisiana with the hurricanes and wildfires in the West, to support care for those who are displaced,” Giroir said on a conference call with reporters. 

Giroir, who heads the Trump administration’s testing effort, said the Department of Health and Human Services will begin to send shipments of Abbott’s new rapid test to governors and nursing homes in mid-September.

The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization last week to Abbott for the new coronavirus antigen test, which it said is the first Covid-19 test that costs about $5 and delivers results in minutes on a testing card without lab equipment, similar to a pregnancy test. The Trump administration quickly secured most of the supply of the test through the end of the year through a deal worth $750 million that will deliver at least 150 million tests. 

The new test, called BinaxNOW, is an antigen test, which is more likely than a molecular test to deliver a false negative result to someone who’s actually infected. While molecular tests are the most accurate on the market, they depend on technical lab equipment, trained personnel and a strained supply chain, which makes scaling up molecular tests to a massive level difficult. 

The test is only authorized for use in patients suspected to have Covid-19 and “within seven days of symptom onset,” the FDA says, but Giroir added Tuesday that the test can be used on people without symptoms if prescribed by state or local health officials. 

Giroir said the government is sending some tests to Louisiana and other areas hit by natural disasters as soon as possible. He added that going forward, HHS will distribute some tests to nursing homes to help protect the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable to Covid-19. The majority of tests, though, will be distributed to governors, who will then use the tests to help reopen schools and “critical infrastructure,” Giroir said. 

“We will continue to build the testing ecosystem to support flattening the curve and saving lives,” he said. “Full speed ahead in terms of quantity, quality, and diversity of testing to support our national strategy.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned last week that the state is “blind” to the size of the coronavirus outbreak there because it had to shutter many testing sites as it battened down for Hurricane Laura. Officials in Louisiana and Texas acknowledged last week that responding to an emergency during the pandemic presents new challenges. 

“We are responding to Hurricane Laura while also responding to a pandemic,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said. “And we are not taking our eye off of what needs to be done to adequately respond to the pandemic, so several things are being done as we assist those who are evacuating that’s different from what has been done in the past.”

Both governors encouraged fleeing residents to seek refuge in hotels or motels rather than potentially crowded evacuation centers to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

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