With one COVID-19 vaccine authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and another likely to gain approval soon, the end of the pandemic could be coming into view.
In the meantime, though, testing remains a critical element of the response, particularly for skilled nursing facilities, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reiterated a commitment to support that element in nursing homes and long-term care facilities in a media briefing held Thursday.
HHS is will maintain an initiative, launched in September, in which approximately 750,000 point-of-care Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card tests were sent to nursing homes across the U.S., HHS assistant health secretary Adm. Brett Giroir said on Thursday.
At the end of August, HHS, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, had placed an order for 150 million rapid Abbott BinaxNOW tests for a total of $760 million. That September initiative would later be expanded to 18 million tests shipped to nursing homes.
The contract with Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) will be completed in early January, Giroir said.
“We have extended the contract for the federal government to procure an additional 30 million tests,” he said. “This will enable us to directly ship approximately 10 million per month for three months to our vulnerable populations, including long-term care, assisted living, and as needed to HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities], tribes, disaster victims and similar populations.”
Nursing homes over the course of the fall began to turn toward the Abbott tests — as Gioir had noted previously — in favor of the units from medical device firms BD and Quidel that formed the backbone of the initial push to ship point-of-care antigen COVID-19 tests to nursing homes.
Some anecdotal reports from operators seemed to suggest that the supplies for the Abbott test held fairly steady over the course of the fall. In the media briefing, Giroir noted that there are signs the Binax test is particularly useful for testing people for COVID-19 under a range of circumstances.
“We have increasing — and I would say definitive evidence from multiple academic and other sources — that Binax tests in particular are highly sensitive and specific for both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, and for both adults and children,” Giroir said on the call.
As of this week, HHS has shipped out 102 million BinaxNOW tests, with 35.9 million going to vulnerable populations.
Antigen tests for COVID-19 detect fragments of proteins on or within the COVID-19 virus; the Abbott system uses a test card to determine positive or negative results, according to an HHS fact sheet. The Quidel Sofia and Sofia 2 Instruments and BD Veritor Plus Systems use a processing unit and separate testing kits.
Giroir clarified during the question-and-answer portion of the call that HHS “plan[s] to supply nursing homes and assisted living on a routine basis, not on an ‘as needed’ basis.”
The system would be similar to shipments of tests based on the current testing requirements for nursing homes, which are determined by COVID-19 transmission in the community, Giroir said. Under the current regulations, providers in so-called “red” counties must test their staffers twice weekly, compared to weekly for “yellow” areas and once per month in the lowest-level “green” counties. When the testing initiative was first announced in July, SNFs in counties with a high prevalence of COVID-19 were prioritized.
“We don’t plan on anything differing,” Giroir said Thursday. “We want to continue to support the most vulnerable until they’re all immunized.”