The federal government is cutting off funding to 13 COVID-19 testing sites in five states at the end of June, arguing their operating model has become inefficient.
The sites, called Community-Based Testing Sites, had been supported by Federal Emergency Management Agency and HHS since mid-March. The agencies formulated an agreement in May to sunset funding for the sites at the end of June. HHS officials said the 13 sites represent a small fraction of the total test sites the federal government is currently funding.
Dr. Brett Giroir, HHS' assistant secretary for health and the official heading up the Trump administration's COVID-19 diagnostic testing effort, said on a call with reporters Wednesday that the agencies have worked with governors to ensure the sites can transition smoothly.
"There is no reason that a locally unresponsive, bulky, parallel system needs to occur when states could happily take these over, and they happily will," Giroir said.
Seven of the 13 sites are located in Texas, a state where COVID-19 cases are surging. Giroir said those test sites will be transitioned to state control and support. Texas officials were "very happy" to take the sites under state control, he said.
But that's not true for Houston's Harris County, which has surpassed 23,000 cases, more than any Texas county. Officials there said the two FEMA-funded sites together test 1,500 people per day, and and losing them puts the community at greater risk.
"However, we are still hoping the federal government will reconsider and keep these sites open during this critical time," officials said in a statement.
Martha Marquez, a spokeswoman for Harris County Public Health, said it's unclear whether the county or state will be able to keep those sites open once they lose federal funding. Although they're staffed by county officials, FEMA pays for the supplies and actual lab tests, which Marquez said can be expensive.
"We are trying to find options to keep them open, but it's not as simple as it seems because we have to keep them open in addition to the ones we already have," she said.
Harris County also runs 800 COVID-19 tests per day out of four mobile sites.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), whose district covers the eastern portion the Houston metro area, expressed "urgent concern" about FEMA's withdrawal of fiscal, personnel and administrative support for COVID-19 test sites in Houston and Harris County in a letter Tuesday to the heads of FEMA and HHS.
In May, when FEMA made the plan to end support on June 30, Garcia said officials could not have predicted the continued rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. She asked funding to be continued through August 30.
"FEMA's removal in this moment would be harmful and irresponsible," Garcia wrote.
Illinois also requested an extension on federal support for two COVID-19 testing sites in Peoria and Harwood Heights.
"Unfortunately, the request was denied," a representative from the state's Public Health Department wrote in an email. "The state of Illinois is committed to increasing testing and will continue to support these sites."
Giroir, by contrast, said on Wednesday's call it is an "absolute misconstruance of the facts" to assert that the federal government is withdrawing support for COVID-19 testing. Rather, he said the administration is "definitively" moving to increase the number of COVID-19 tests being performed, especially on vulnerable populations.
Giroir said HHS is currently paying retail pharmacies a flat fee to perform COVID-19 tests at over 600 locations. He also said 93% of the country's federally-qualified community health centers, which are funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, are performing COVID-19 tests from about 13,000 locations. He said one in three Americans living in poverty receive care at those facilities.
Plus, Giroir said the Trump administration sent $11 billion to states and tribes for testing and contract tracing. He said there is no reason Texas can't run the sites on its own, especially given money it received under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act's Paycheck Protection Program.
"If I were Connecticut or New Hampshire, I would wonder why Texas gets a bonus of seven sites that are independently paid for outside of the just and fair allocation that was indicated by Congress in a parallel fashion," he said. "So they clearly have the funds to do this."
Despite HHS' efforts to convince people that funds are not ending, some lawmakers don't see it that way. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a Tweet that cases are spiking, the administration has $14 billion for testing and tracing it hasn't spent, "But President Trump thinks the right move is to pull federal support for testing out of hotspot areas!?"
Additional testing sites losing funding are in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Giroir said the federal government is not pulling the rug out from anybody.
"In my opinion, this is not a story," he said. "This is a story of orderly transition. And the federal government even going beyond the normal transition date to keep these open until the states were totally comfortable, even though this represented a small, tiny fraction of testing."