Cars are lined up at a United Memorial Medical Center Covid-19 testing site in Houston. Texas Picture: David J. Phillip/AP
Cars are lined up at a United Memorial Medical Center Covid-19 testing site in Houston. Texas Picture: David J. Phillip/AP

Trump administration defends pulling plug on 13 Covid-19 testing sites

By Amy Goldstein Time of article published Jun 25, 2020

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Washington - Top Trump administration health officials sought Wednesday to dampen a controversy over an end to federal management of 13 coronavirus testing sites, insisting the change does not diminish access to diagnostic tests, even as the number of infections soar in many states.

Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services who is the government's coronavirus testing coordinator, said seven sites in Texas and five elsewhere were part of an early phase of a federal community testing program for the virus that he called "antiquated," saying they have been kept open a month longer than planned.

Giroir's remarks, in an unusually lengthy conference call with journalists lasting nearly an hour, marked the second consecutive day that senior health officials publicly distanced themselves from President Donald Trump's assertion during a campaign rally Saturday that he had directed officials to "slow the testing down." After White House officials later said the president had not been serious, Trump said, "I don't kid."

Giroir said Wednesday afternoon: "No one has told me, suggested, intimated, passed a note, hinted, sent a carrier pigeon that we should decrease testing. It's quite the opposite."

HHS's explanation that it is not backing away - and that federal funds for tests are now plentiful - did not entirely soothe local officials. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said the shift in who runs the sites "puts a strain" on that city's resources as cases of the virus are rising rapidly there.

The controversy over the test sites involves the last 13 of 48 locations created starting in March when testing materials were in short supply.

These locations - staffed with US Public Health Service officers and paid for with federal money - were designed to end in May, after newer iterations of the testing program came into existence, health officials said. Those include 600 sites run primarily by private pharmacies, plus 13,000 locations run by community health centers. Meanwhile, Giroir said, coronavirus relief packages adopted by Congress have provided $11 billion to pay for testing, including at sites run by states and local governments.

Federal officials complied in April with requests from governors and lawmakers to keep the 13 sites in federal hands through June, rather than May.

"We're not pulling the rug out from anyone," Giroir said. With the federal government still providing swabs and testing kits, he said, "the resources have now matured so the states and local communities, who control public health, are empowered" to operate the testing sites.

"We are not withdrawing federal support," Giroir said, "Federal support is coming in a different way."

He called the original system bulky and inefficient, dating to a time in the pandemic when states did not have enough testing capacity.

He said most of the 13 are transitioning to being run by state or local health officials. In a few instances, he said, the sites were being closed because state or local officials decided that community health centers, drugstores or other places residents can get tested are nearby, making the original sites redundant.

He singled out two large testing sites in Houston, where he characterized officials as "very happy to take this under state control."

That portrayal differs from the sentiments from four Houston-area congressional Democrats who wrote Tuesday to HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, contending that changing who runs the sites would be "harmful and irresponsible." The letter asks federal officials to continue to manage the testing sites in Houston and surrounding Harris County through August.

After Giroir's conference call, Turner criticized the shift at a news conference about that city's spiking coronavirus cases. Highlighting that Houston was averaging 650 new cases a day, he said two large testing sites in the city are "hugely important."

Turner said their transfer to local control "is going to pull resources away from other sites" elsewhere in the city. "It puts a strain on us, but those sites are too important to shut down."

The Washington Post

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