That was quick. Just Thursday I was writing about the federal government’s plan to end funding to thirteen coronavirus testing sites across the country, seven of which are in Texas. Other sites in Illinois, New Jersey, Colorado, and Pennsylvania face the same fate. Texas is experiencing a spike in new cases of COVID-19 so the announcement wasn’t met with favorable responses by local lawmakers. By Friday afternoon the decision had been postponed.
The reason for the change was said to be because the testing program used at these sites is antiquated. The federal government is moving away from it to expand testing options. So, though assurances were made by Assistant HHS Secretary Brett Giroir that the change would be as smooth as possible and services would not be affected, let’s be honest – the timing was not great given the situation on the ground right now in Houston and other major cities in the state.
Lawmakers raised concerns about two testing sites in particular in Houston, referred to as the backbone of testing efforts in the city. “Just those two sites alone, over 60,000 people have been tested, and they are maxing out before noon every single day now,” Turner said. “They are hugely important.” The mayor said that the city would pick up the costs of these sites when federal money stopped. HHS was careful to explain that local and state officials were on board with taking over control of testing sites.
Local lawmakers and both of the state’s Republican senators, Senators Cornyn and Cruz, wrote letters to HHS asking for an extension to August.
Sens. Cruz and John Cornyn (R-Texas) on Thursday sent a letter urging Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar and Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Pete Gaynor to continue federal support for the successful program, saying:
“Texas is currently experiencing a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases. […] Some of the state’s largest cities-where these CBTS sites are located-are experiencing single-day records of new cases. Now is not the time to end a program that is working and successfully increasing testing capacity-especially for underserved communities in the state.”
By Friday afternoon, I received a press release from Senator Cruz’s office announcing that the efforts of both him and Senator Cornyn had been successful. An extension has been granted, though not until August. The extension is for two weeks.
“I’m grateful the administration heeded my call with Sen. Cornyn to extend federal support for Community-Based Testing Sites in Texas. Our fight against the coronavirus isn’t over, and it is important to provide state and local officials every tool available to protect public health. We must remain vigilant as we work to defeat this virus and get our economy get back on its feet. Testing is crucial to those endeavors.”
Governor Abbott said he also asked for additional time for the funding to continue. “The State of Texas remains unwavering in our efforts to secure access to testing in communities across the state,” said Governor Abbott. “These federally-supported testing sites are a vital.”
Also on Friday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised the threat level to red for the county, the highest level.
The current red Level 1, “signifies a severe and uncontrolled level of COVID-19, meaning outbreaks are present and worsening and that testing and contact tracing capacity is strained or exceeded.”
“The harsh truth is that our current infection rate is on pace to overwhelm our hospitals in the very near future,” Judge Hidalgo said. “We hope this serves as a wakeup call to everyone that the time to act is now.”
Under the new Level 1 advisory, the following guidance is in effect:
Stay home, except for the most essential needs like going to the grocery store for food and medicine.
Avoid and cancel all gatherings of any size.
Essential workers practice special precautions to prevent spread.
All vulnerable individuals (65+ or with pre-existing health conditions) stay home.
Self-quarantine for 14 days if in close and prolonged contact with someone who has tested positive with COVID-19.
Wear face coverings to protect others.
Avoid non-essential business and personal travel. Avoid public transportation where possible.
Cancel visits to nursing homes, long term care facilities, and hospitals.
Avoid and cancel all indoor and outdoor gatherings, including concerts, rodeos, large sporting events, etc. Schools and after-school activities for youth close, as directed by educational authorities.
Like other Democrats, Hidalgo blames the re-opening of business and activities in the state for the spike in new cases and hospitalizations. She says it was too soon and lessons must be learned. She used hyperbole to make her case to the reporters at the press conference. She made it sound like those who may have loosened their mitigation practices to stop the spread of the coronavirus are making a conscious decision to kill people or something. Sadly, this type of language has come to be common for her.
“When did we lose our respect for human life? Since when did we decide as a society that instead of saving a life … we would treat human lives as collateral damage? This pandemic is like an invisible hurricane”
These sorts of statements by Hidalgo make for good television drama but most people realize that the state cannot shut down forever. Whether it was being said out loud or not, most people understood that as the state re-opened and people came out of their homes, the virus would spread. Governor Abbott closed the bars as of Friday noon in hotspots like Houston yet left open dine-in restaurants, though he brought capacity limits back down to 50%. That sort of order may not make sense but it looks to be a compromise between shutting down obvious social settings where it is impossible to enforce social distancing and facial masks while allowing restaurants to remain open.