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Rep. Annie Kuster: We need a coordinated national testing strategy to responsibly reopen our economy

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Washington, D.C., April 24, 2020 | By Annie Kuster

Over the past two months, New Hampshire and the nation have faced an unprecedented challenge with the spread of the novel coronavirus. The public health and economic consequences of COVID-19 have sent shockwaves throughout the Granite State.

In an effort to protect the most vulnerable individuals among us, states and communities across the country have implemented physical distancing measures to slow the spread of this virus.

These measures have been critical to stemming COVID-19 and saving lives, but at the same time, they have left more than 100,000 Granite Staters out of work and shuttered the doors of small businesses across New Hampshire. As we balance both the health and economic consequences of this crisis, one theme appears again and again: the need for more testing.

This week, Congressman Chris Pappas and I held our seventh telephone town hall on COVID-19. In this new normal of physical distancing, telephone town halls have allowed us to connect with tens of thousands of Granite Staters and given many the opportunity to ask questions directly of New Hampshire public health officials and economic experts.

In our town hall conversations, we’ve heard about the real impact of COVID-19 in our communities: from a small-business owner trying to keep their employees on payroll to a grandmother wondering if she can be visited by family. Many people have expressed their eagerness to return to work, to see friends, and to spend time with loved ones.

It has become clear that reopening our economy and addressing the health risks of COVID-19 go hand-in-hand. As we’ve seen in other countries, testing has been crucial to “flattening the curve” and taking responsible steps to move toward returning to normal life.

Unfortunately, federal support for testing has been woefully inadequate, and we lack a comprehensive nationwide testing strategy.

When coronavirus first began to spread across the United States, our ability to get ahead of this crisis was hampered by inadequate testing – few tests were available, and many of the first test kits distributed by the CDC were found to be faulty. Earlier this month, New Hampshire received 15 machines that would expedite testing but they were accompanied by materials for only 120 tests.

In one of our telephone town halls, Dr. Michael Calderwood, Dartmouth-Hitchcock epidemiologist and infectious disease expert said, “not only do we need more test kits, we also need more swabs, swab mediums, and efficient PPE for specimen collectors. There are national and international shortages on all of these elements.” We cannot allow the failure to administer the necessary testing early on in this crisis to stymie our efforts moving forward.

In recent weeks, the United States has improved testing capacity, surpassing South Korea with nearly 12,000 tests per million people, but there is much work to be done. That’s why I’ve joined a bipartisan effort in Congress to urge HHS, FDA and other federal agency partners to partner with private sector manufacturers to spur innovation and rapidly develop tests so we can safely reopen our economy.

Additionally, I was proud to support bipartisan legislation this week that allocated $25 billion for a nationwide effort to ramp up testing. This critical funding includes nearly $11 billion for states and localities to increase lab capacities and trace contacts.

It’s long past time for President Trump to fully implement the Defense Production Act to produce the material necessary for widespread testing. While testing may not be a silver bullet, it is integral to addressing the public health aspect of the COVID-19 crisis so that we can mitigate the economic fallout.

To meet the scale of this public health and economic disaster, Congress has passed sweeping measures to address COVID-19. We’ve put forward legislation to bolster our hospitals and health care system, support individuals and families out of work, and help our struggling small businesses.

This week, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to vote on additional measures to move us forward in our fight against COVID-19. The legislation we sent to the president’s desk will provide $310 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, $75 billion for our hospitals and, importantly, $25 billion for national testing.

We are all eager to move on from this chapter in our nation’s history but it will be a long and difficult road. The health and economic consequences of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come. As we look toward our first steps out of this crisis, it is clear that testing will be a crucial part of responsibly reopening our society and our economy.

I know these times have been challenging for us all. It’s important to remember that physical distancing does not mean socially isolating ourselves. Take a moment to call a friend, family member or neighbor. A kind voice can make all the difference.

(Annie Kuster represents the 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.)