One of the worst things about the coronavirus pandemic, other than the actual virus itself, is the confusion that keeps popping up about testing. Now lawmakers are making waves because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is shifting how the federal government provides support to thirteen testing sites.
The community-based coronavirus testing sites are located across the country, including seven that are in Texas. Texas, as you know, is experiencing an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases, including hospitalizations. Thankfully, the death rate is not skyrocketing. The positivity rate is rising and testing continues to be a priority. The trend now is younger, more healthy people getting the virus.
So, when the plan to shift how the federal government will support these sites was announced, lawmakers do what lawmakers do – they balked at allegedly losing federal money. The sites are part of a “now antiquated program” the federal government has been using. The federal government is moving away from it to expand testing options. It is noted that the federal government has provided billions of dollars to help state testing efforts.
An array of Texas officials from the city of Houston to the state legislature and Congress are urging the White House to rethink the move, warning of “catastrophic cascading consequences” of pulling federal support for testing sites, four of which are in Harris County and administer thousands of tests per day. Houston officials say the sites won’t close, but keeping them open without federal help will drain much-needed resources as the city works to expand testing and build a contact tracing network.
Two of the sites in Houston are considered by city officials to be the backbone of testing efforts. They each administer up to 500 tests per day. Since Memorial Day, Texas has seen a 190% increase in lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations. Houston could soon be the country’s worst-hit city. Governor Abbott is rightly sounding the alarm that more mitigation is necessary to stop the outbreak now. The pushback against the announcement is coming from both sides of the political aisle.
“Now is the time to be ramping up our testing capabilities, not slowing it down,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat who led a letter to the heads of FEMA and Health and Human Services on Tuesday. Houston Democratic U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher also signed it.
Also pushing back on the plan is a group of 20 members of the Texas House and Senate representing Harris County and Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
Assistant HHS Secretary Brett Giroir is assuring lawmakers that he has spoken with Texas leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt, and Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd. Giroir claims that they all say that they are happy for the state to take control of the testing sites. To me, this makes sense. State and local officials are on the ground and more aware of what the needs are in local communities.
Giroir said the federal government gives testing supplies to the state every month and that the federal government has sent Texas $567 million and Houston $73 million in coronavirus relief funding that they can use to help pick up the costs of keeping the sites running. Covering the seven sites in Texas that will lose federal support should be a “minimal burden” on the state, he said.
The government isn’t stopping its support. The support will come in a different way. The amount of testing will not decrease and the sites shouldn’t lose resources. The plan to transition to states operating the testing sites has been in the works since April. In other words, this isn’t a surprise announcement.
Giroir said the sites, which are located in Texas, Illinois, New Jersey, Colorado and Pennsylvania, will be supported by the $11 billion Congress allocated for testing and contact tracing, just like hundreds of other sites across the country.
“We have worked carefully to make sure that [the 13 sites] could sunset without losing any services to any people,” Giroir said.
Giroir said those 13 sites will remain open and will be operated by the states. He said governors were aware of the plan to transition to state control, which had been in place since April.
“There is no reason that a locally unresponsive, bulky, parallel system needs to occur when the states could happily take these over, and they happily will,” Giroir said.
Objections are coming from Texas lawmakers because of the timing – the spike in coronavirus cases comes at the same time the federal government is changing how it supports the testing sites. A request for a later date for the change has been made.
David Persse, who leads the Houston Health Department, sent a letter to Deputy Surgeon General Erica Schwartz asking for federal support to continue through the end of August.
“Losing the support of the federal government for testing sites will undoubtedly have catastrophic cascading consequences in the region’s ability to adequately test, quarantine and isolate, ultimately blunting the progression of COVID-19,” Persse said.
In March, the CDC opened 41 community-based testing sites in coronavirus hot spots across the country. The program is now outdated and these 13 testing sites around the country are the only ones remaining in operation. The sites were narrowly focused and operated when supplies were more limited. That is why HHS is making the change now. And Giroir points out that there is a federal program in place that will reimburse retail pharmacies for providing tests. There are now more than 600 testing sites in 48 states operating under this program.