Admiral Brett Giroir headshot
Admiral Brett P. Giroir, M.D., assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The federal government is allocating an additional 30 million Abbott BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests to assisted living communities and other vulnerable groups through at least March.

Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett Giroir, M.D., said Thursday that the government’s current contract for 150 million total BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests, which was set to end in early January, will be extended. That extension will allow the Department of Health and Human Services to ship 10 million tests each month over the next three months to assisted living communities, nursing homes, home health and hospice organizations, the Indian Health Service, and historically black colleges and universities.

American Seniors Housing Association President David Schless welcomed the announcement. 

“It’s a positive development,” Schless said. “We keep seeing the surge in the virus, so it is a big plus to be able to access those testing kits.”

A LeadingAge spokesperson also said the help is welcome.

“The virus is raging around the country; older adults have been and continue to be disproportionately harmed by the pandemic,” the spokesperson said. “Help is needed to keep older adults, and the people who care for them, safe from the coronavirus wherever they live and receive care — from nursing homes to assisted and independent living, as well as affordable housing.”

In an earlier letter to President-elect Joseph Biden and his transition team, LeadingAge stated that in the first 30 days of the administration’s term, the Health Resources and Services Administration should require health centers to bring testing resources to senior housing, adult day, Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, senior centers and other settings where older people live and/or use support services.

Giroir said the shipments will continue to be based on the degree of positivity within counties. Assisted living communities in areas with greater than 10% positivity (red counties) and those in areas with 5% to 10% positivity (yellow counties) are prioritized.

“We want to continue to support the most vulnerable until they are immunized and we see a clear signal there is not a problem in that population,” Giroir said. “There will be as-needed outbreak situations we need to surge test into, but we definitely want to continue supporting the vulnerable the very best we can.”

At the same time, HHS will pause its direct shipments to state governors. States, territories and tribes will be able to order tests directly for the same $5-per-test cost through a government contract on an as-needed basis.

The federal government also is allowing a portion of the BinaxNOW tests to enter the commercial market so businesses, healthcare systems and individuals can use them. The FDA authorized the BinaxNOW antigen card for prescription home use via a telehealth consult. 

HHS originally allocated 50 million tests to assisted living communities, nursing homes, home health and hospice organizations, the Indian Health Service, and historically black colleges and universities. As of this week, the government had shipped 102 million BinaxNOW tests, including 66.6 million to states and 35.9 million to vulnerable populations.

Maggie Elehwany, Argentum’s senior vice president of public affairs, said any additional testing capacity is welcomed.

“Our concerns remain related to consistency and reliability — communities need to receive the appropriate amount of tests, consistently, in order to use them effectively,” Elehwany said. “Some communities are trying to meet specific state guidelines on testing and are only able to do so by procuring tests on their own through their own relationships. And, of course, this means more out-of-pocket expenses.”

Senior living providers have questioned the accuracy of the rapid antigen tests, preferring the polymerase chain reaction molecular tests, which often are mandated locally and by states. A previous LeadingAge survey revealed that 37% of their members were not using the rapid-results antigen tests from the federal government.  

Giroir said that definitive evidence from multiple academic sources shows that the BinaxNOW tests are highly sensitive and specific for symptomatic and asymptomatic testing in adults and children. He added that he is “extremely comfortable and confident” in the use of BinaxNOW in testing both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.

To date, a total of more than 218 million coronavirus tests have been completed in the country. As part of the federal distribution plan for COVID-19 testing, HHS provided $20 billion to support testing and other needs in assisted living communities, nursing homes and home health agencies.