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Blunt Pays Tribute to Missourians Who Have Gone Above and Beyond During COVID-19 Pandemic, Provides Update on Shark Tank Testing Initiative

August 05, 2020

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.), Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, spoke on the Senate floor to pay tribute to Missourians who have gone above and beyond to help others in their community during the pandemic.

Blunt also provided an update on the Shark Tank-like program that he helped create and is currently underway at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to accelerate the development of new COVID-19 testing technologies. Last week, Blunt welcomed NIH’s announcement that it awarded contracts to seven biomedical diagnostic companies through the initiative.  

Following are Excerpts of Blunt’s Remarks:

“I want to talk about two topics today. One I was reminded of when I was in St. Joseph, Mo., Kansas City, Mo., Springfield and Joplin over the weekend talking to health care providers and volunteers, frankly, of all kinds who are trying to do what they can to help us emerge from this pandemic stronger than we were to start with. Certainly, the first that comes to mind are the health care workers themselves, and medical workers themselves, the doctors, the nurses, the support staff who we've relied on from the very first moments that we began to realize that this virus was bigger than any health issue we've dealt with in a long time.

“We're still depending on them today and you know at some point you run out of some of the capacity and steam that you have to do the job that needs to be done. But we see these heroes continue to step up, some giving their lives. Billy Birmingham in Kansas City was an emergency medical technician.

“He was with the Kansas City Fire Department and he died of coronavirus in April. His son described Billy as selfless. He said Billy had decided he wanted to find new ways to help people and so he reinvented himself as an EMT when he was in his 40s, so he could help others. And then he was an EMT for about twenty-two years.

“We see the emergency medical technicians, the first responders out there, saving lives, bringing people in a desperate situation to the hospital as infectious as many of them can be, sort of the height of the suffering that they've had and unable to do much to help you help them, but we see that happening. Lots of sacrifice in the community that we are benefited by.

“People like Heather Black at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Hospital in Columbia. She donated 623 hand-sewn masks for her colleagues and the veterans at the facility, the veterans they take care of. She brought her sewing machine to work so then in her free time she could make masks before her shift and after her shift and during her breaks. One of her colleagues said you have to be just literally awed by somebody that dedicated to helping people who, remember, in between the breaks where she's making masks, she's helping care for the patients at the veterans hospital.

“We see people finding different ways to be heroes in their community. Dozens of people in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in May, decided they would put a parade together for residents of the veterans home who weren’t able to have visitors. So veterans got to the windows, and dozens of people came by doing what they could to present maybe a Memorial Day kind of parade.

“Or the groups in St. Louis, and in other places, but particularly the one I was thinking about in St. Louis where they went around and collected food and personal care items and they took those to people who had lost their jobs, who were suffering from the pandemic, who were isolated in their efforts. …

“And then we see businesses who figure out how to use their unique set of resources, whatever that might be, to make things happen. When we find it hard to get hand sanitizers, a number of distilleries went into the hand sanitizer business. Anheuser-Busch, not a distillery but a brewery, used its brewery facilities to produce more than a half a million bottles of hand sanitizer. And then they used their distribution system to get those half a million bottles in the communities in places around the country where they would do the most good.

“The Bass Pro Shops in my hometown, Springfield, Missouri, donated 1 million facemasks to health care workers on the frontlines. From delivering truckloads of critical supplies to simply checking on our neighbors, there are thousands of stories to tell in towns across Missouri and, Mr. President, towns in Georgia, where you live, people doing all they can to make this terrible situation less terrible. This challenging situation less challenging. And we are grateful to them. I know a number of people have come to the floor today to talk about those heroes and how they serve us.

“Mr. President, the second topic I wanted to talk about is we spend lots of time discussing what to do in this next phase of dealing with coronavirus legislation and I want to talk about something we did earlier and the results that it's produced. In April, Senator Alexander and I proposed that the National Institutes of Health create a shark tank. Shark tank program for scientists to develop new technologies for COVID-19 testing. NIH set that up very quickly. We gave them the authority and money to do it but they in a week did in a week what they normally would have done in 6 months.

“They've been working overtime ever since with the private sector and with BARDA, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, to meet the tremendous needs for quicker and earlier tests. Mr. President, you and I talked about this just the other day that the president's right in his view that some of these tests only tell us information that gives us more data. We need tests that are quicker and have an immediate response. If you get a test and you don't have a response for five days, that really doesn't do anybody a whole lot of good. …

“So this program that we've asked NIH, the National Institutes of Health, to work on to put together scientists and researchers and engineers to come up with their boldest ideas. And so far, since April 29th,  650 applications have been submitted of ideas from single individuals or businesses deciding, “I think this would work,” would be sort of the starting point. And by the way, a lot more people than 650 had an “I think this will work” idea, but when they sat down to think about it, you had 650 people, units of some kind, make a proposal that they thought needed a careful look.

“Thirty-one of those projects have already gone into Phase 1 testing, where they go through a process of validation, of seeing if the likelihood that this will work was as great as the scientists, the engineers, the technologists that were looking at populating the shark tank, thought it would be. NIH scientists hope to be able to select at least 20 of these to consider even more quickly and, in fact, just last week announced seven companies to start scaling up production of their technology.

“We're investing - taxpayers are investing - about $250 million to help those test get out there quickly.

“These are tests that could be available as early as next month. Some of them are the type of rapid test that gives a result on site. One test uses a handheld device that can detect the virus within 30 minutes.

“Another test, companies developed a way to speed up lab testing so that labs that now handle hundreds could handle tens of thousands in the same period of time. These kinds of technologies and others are essential if we want to get our society fully reopen. In early April, There was an average 145,000 tests a day. Today, we're running about 800,000 tests, but often they're not the kind of tests we need and they're not the numbers we need.

“We need tests that millions of people can take the test dozens of times. We need a test where every person who walks into an office or a factory or a nursing home or a school or a child care center has the confidence to know that they're not bringing a virus into that center that they don't know about. It's a high hurdle, but I think it's one we're going to clear. The HEALS Act includes another $16 billion for testing to help in our priorities, which are nursing homes and daycare centers, child care centers, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities.

“Those are things where we think the government itself has an extraordinary obligation to make the difference. That $16 billion added with $9 billion of money for this purpose that hadn't been spent up until now means that we have that kind of big investment to see that people have tests that work for them and work quickly. For these things to happen, Congress has to act, Congress has to move, we have to be supportive of efforts that get our society back to school, back to work, back to child care, and back to better health.”

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