In an effort to prevent potential COVID-19 outbreaks in high-risk communities, the Trump administration said it has started shipping rapid coronavirus tests to more than three dozen historically Black colleges and universities.
In the first shipment, more than 250,000 rapid tests were distributed to 41 public colleges and Howard University that identify as HBCUs, federal officials said.
“We know they’ve been underserved historically, and we just want to support them,” Adm. Brett Giroir, the White House coronavirus task force testing czar, told McClatchy.
Another 300,000 are anticipated for delivery by next week to approximately 65 more HBCUs that did not receive the tests in the first round, the officials told McClatchy.
“We think it’s very, very important to equip HBCUs,” Giroir said. “It is a fact, except for a few very high-tech globally competitive universities that many of these are small, rural and do not have the kind of laboratory capacity that other universities do have.”
HBCUs are universities that were founded with primarily Black student bodies before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
African Americans are five times more likely to be hospitalized from coronavirus, Giroir said. An analysis of HBCUs that the administration conducted also found them to have older faculty and staff with other health factors that made them a high-risk demographic for the coronavirus.
Each university is receiving enough kits to test every member of its student body, staff and faculty, although the administration does not believe that will be necessary. The number of tests will allow the HBCUs to test symptomatic individuals and 5 to 10 percent of their student populations a week.
“And if you start getting positives, you know you have that spark before you have a wildfire,” Giroir said.
Each school is expected to receive between 3,000 and 10,000 tests initially, and they will be resupplied “as often as they need,” he said. While the initial supply of coronavirus tests are anticipated to “last weeks,” he said the government could resupply the schools “as frequently as every week” if necessary.
“This first shipment should last them quite a period of time unless there’s a very unusual circumstance within that campus,” he said, in which case the federal government would surge tests and supplies to those schools
HBCUs are the latest beneficiaries of rapid tests that the Department of Health and Human Services said it had ordered from Abbott in August as part of a contract for 150 million tests by the end of the year.
The rapid coronavirus tests were sent to Howard, a private university, and 41 public institutions, including Winston-Salem State University, Fayetteville State University, Florida A&M University, Kentucky State University, Elizabeth City State University and Fort Valley State University.
Officials pledged Monday to send tests to all 107 of the schools that are identified by the Department of Education as HBCUs.
Giroir said the task force identified HBCUs for the additional support after conducting an analysis of the demographics of the faculty and staff at the schools.
HBCUs often have limited resources and cannot afford coronavirus testing from private firms, he said.
“If we don’t support them they could be tinderboxes for infections, hospitalizations and bad outcomes, and there is just no reason for that to happen,” he said.
Giroir and other federal health officials such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield and coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx have conducted calls with HBCUs to assess their testing needs. Birx has also visited HBCUs on recent trips to various states.
HBCUs have asked for assistance and been identified by Birx and her team as in need, he said.
President Donald Trump and coronavirus task force member Dr. Scott Atlas mentioned the initiative publicly at a White House news conference last week.
“The historically black colleges and universities, we are doing, at my suggestion — because they have had a difficult problem there — we are doing more testing there and finer testing. We have our — our great apparatus there,” Trump said.
The administration initially sent the Abbott rapid tests, which can produce results in 15 minutes, to nursing homes in communities with a high number of cases, assisted living facilities, the Indian Health Service and disaster areas.
Wildfire areas in California and Oregon and hurricane-hit areas in Texas and Louisiana received a combined 65,000 of the tests, Giroir said.
He said that additional nursing homes and assisted living facilities and home health caregivers would receive tests in the current round, in addition to the Black colleges and universities.
Giroir said that in the next month, K-12 schools could receive the rapid tests, but the administration is prioritizing disaster struck areas.
The current test shipment coincides with the annual White House conference on HBCUs Sept. 20-26.
North Carolina A&T University (NCAT), the largest HBCU in the nation, is on the administration’s list for the first HBCU group to receive the rapid tests.
Todd Simmons, associate vice chancellor for university relations at NCAT, said in an interview that the federal government should prioritize testing at colleges where a majority of students come from disadvantaged communities.
“But I would also say in the same breath, that if you look around America at the campuses that are having difficulties with COVID and coronavirus, that HBCUs and minority serving institutions more broadly, are not the places where you’re seeing the big problems,” he said.
Simmons said that NCAT has not had what it considers an outbreak after discouraging students from leaving town for Labor Day and steering students toward voluntary testing that it has been conducting. It has reported 62 confirmed COVID-19 cases on campus.
“Our campuses typically do not have fraternity and sorority houses on campus, or even adjacent to campus. And so, some of the particular irresponsibility that we’ve seen across the country has been centered in those populations and parties that have been held without social distancing or masking and clusters that have sprung up as a result after that,” he said.
Simmons also added that the backgrounds and life experiences of students, such as being the first in their family to go to college, also help keep irresponsible behaviors at bay.
“The strong majority of our students are first generation in college. College to them, may mean something different than it means to other students who may come from college attending families. They may see the opportunity with a greater sense of care,” Simmons said.