Senate Democrats unveil plan to ramp up coronavirus testing that includes $30 billion in emergency funding

Senate Democrats unveil plan to ramp up coronavirus testing that includes $30 billion in emergency funding
© Stefani Reynolds

Senate Democratic leadership rolled out a proposal on Wednesday to ramp up nationwide coronavirus testing, which public health officials have said will be key to lifting social distancing measures. 

The plan — unveiled by Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayCOVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration Lack of child care poses major hurdle as businesses reopen Democratic leaders say Trump testing strategy is 'to deny the truth' about lack of supplies MORE (D-Wash.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell blocks resolution condemning Trump over treatment of protesters House Democrat demands answers from Secret Service about role breaking up White House protests Pelosi, Schumer say treatment of protesters outside White House 'dishonors every value that faith teaches us' MORE (D-N.Y.) and other members of leadership — would provide $30 billion in emergency funding to increase testing and build out a structure for administering tests across the country. 

"What I've heard constantly from people in my state is ... where are the tests? It's been a constant refrain from the beginning until today," said Murray, who spearheaded the nine-page paper detailing the Democratic proposal. 

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Schumer added that the administration's testing regime was "at best incomplete and at worst in shambles." 

"The only way we can get our economy back up and running is by addressing the health crisis," Schumer said, characterizing comprehensive testing as the best way, short of a vaccine, to achieve that goal. 

The funding would cover "testing-related activities," with a "significant portion" of the funding going toward optimizing the national supply chain for manufacturing tests and developing different types of tests for monitoring and controlling COVID-19, according to the proposal.  

Democrats are also recommending Congress establish a $4.5 billion per year fund for public health infrastructure that could be used to strengthen the ability to increase testing and the ability to trace who an infected individual has been in contact with. 

The emergency funding, according to Democrats, should be used toward creating same-day testing results on all COVID-19 tests. Getting test results currently takes at least days, and in many cases weeks. 

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Schumer said the plan offered by Democrats could serve as a "road map" for how to administer widespread testing, including ensuring free testing for all and contact tracing for individuals who were exposed to a person with the disease. 

"If this is mishandled the disease could resurge," Schumer said. "Testing is the best tool we have to fight the virus today."  

Lawmakers have already passed three coronavirus bills, including a $2.2 trillion package last month. Beyond an "interim" bill currently being negotiated on additional small business funds, leadership in both chambers say they expect they will need a larger "phase four" bill.

Congress is currently out of town until at least May 4, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate passes bill to give flexibility for small business coronavirus aid program On The Money: GOP turning against new round of ,200 rebate checks | Millions of Americans frustrated by delayed unemployment checks | Senate votes to give coronavirus relief program more flexibility Rand Paul holding up quick passage of anti-lynching bill MORE (R-Ky.) has said he believes health care should be a top focus of the fourth bill. 

"We would very much like it to be part of the next COVID package," Schumer said on Wednesday when asked if Democrats want the testing proposal included in future bills. 

The Democratic plan goes beyond providing new funding and recommends a myriad of legislative steps for Congress to take to ramp up the ability to do widespread testing and the infrastructure needed to establish such a system.  

The proposal recommends Congress pass legislation to bolster the testing supply chain, including incentivizing the production of testing supplies within the United States; urges the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to share information on a weekly basis about the amount of testing supplies and potential shortages; and encourages the administration to develop multiple types of tests. 

To ensure that tests are free, Senate Democrats are recommending establishing a joint HHS and Department of Labor ombudsman to serve as point of contact for patients who have been charged. 

Public health officials say that widespread, nationwide testing is needed before restrictions and closures sparked by the coronavirus can safely be scaled back. A draft plan from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FEMA and reopening plans rolled out Tuesday by California and Oregon all include widespread testing as prerequisites for restarting public life.

But testing in the United States has been beset by a rocky rollout, with a myriad of complaints about the inability to get tests. Laboratories across the country are also warning that funding shortfalls are jeopardizing their ability to increase coronavirus testing capacity. 

Experts say millions of tests per week are needed, but in the past week the country performed about 860,000 tests, according to the COVID Tracking Project.  

After Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, said some testing machines were sitting unused in labs, the Association of American Medical Colleges sent her a letter saying that it is because of a lack of needed testing supplies.

Senate Democrats released a report on Wednesday, spearheaded by Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowSenate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Democrats warn of 'captured' GOP court ahead of November election Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply MORE (D-Mich.), knocking the Trump administration for being "drastically behind in testing compared to other countries." 

"Testing saves lives. And a comprehensive strategy for rapid testing is essential in order to get our economy going again and allow Americans to go back to work  By failing to implement widespread testing months ago, the United States has been left unprepared and our families are paying the price," Stabenow said in a statement.