HHS Forced To Keep Texas COVID Testing Sites Open Following Public Outcry

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11: Assistant Secretary for Health at the HHS Admiral Brett Giroir speaks during a press briefing about coronavirus testing in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 11, 2020 in Washington, D... WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 11: Assistant Secretary for Health at the HHS Admiral Brett Giroir speaks during a press briefing about coronavirus testing in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 11, 2020 in Washington, DC. Several White House staff members and aides have recently tested positive for the coronavirus and three top health officials from the White House coronavirus task force are now self-quarantining after potential exposure. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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The Trump administration reversed itself and extended support for COVID-19 testing sites in Texas on Friday.

The extension followed a public outcry after TPM revealed on Tuesday that federal help was set to end on June 30.

Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir said in a statement that his agency would support five testing sites in Texas for two weeks longer than initially planned.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday requesting an extension of support for the free, drive-through testing sites.

Local reporters in Texas attributed the extension to a request from Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

Texas officials have spent weeks clamoring for the sites to be extended. The move comes as cases and hospitalizations in the state have skyrocketed, and as Gov. Abbott has paused the state’s reopening.

“Federal public health officials have been in continuous contact with our public health leaders in Texas, and after receiving yesterday’s request for an extension, have agreed to extend support for five Community-Based Testing Sites in Texas,” Giroir said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 diagnoses and assess the need for further federal support of these sites as we approach the extension date.”

HHS and FEMA have supported the sites by providing test kits and signing contracts with labs and call centers to notify patients of their results.

Local officials told TPM this week that the federal exit would force them to rely on a private contractor to replace the lost capacity. The cities would then be forced to use a limited pool of CARES Act funding to pay for the sites, coming as localities around the country already face budget crunches due to the pandemic.

Giroir said in his statement that HHS would “provide additional resources to assist the State of Texas to prepare for the upcoming transition to these five locations becoming fully state-run testing sites.”

The extension only marks two more weeks of support for the Lone Star state. It comes as the Trump administration has committed itself to a policy of state-level handling of the pandemic even as states and cities struggle to make ends meet.

HHS and FEMA initially set up 41 testing sites around the country in March, aimed at offering federal support as the country began to face the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is not the first time that the Trump administration has been forced to reverse itself on the issue. In early April, HHS abandoned a similar plan to cut support for the sites.

As of this writing, only 13 of the sites remain open.

It’s also not clear what extension request Giroir had in mind when issuing his statement. Abbott’s was not the first to come to the Trump administration from a Texas official. Rocky Vaz, the emergency director for the city of Dallas, told TPM on Tuesday that his city had already asked for — and been refused — an extension.

Separately, Houston officials released letters following TPM’s initial story showing that they, too, had issued requests to HHS which had gone unheeded.

An HHS spokeswoman told TPM that Texas’s request letter was not immediately available, after being asked to produce a copy.

HHS has argued since Tuesday evening that the sites for which Texas officials demanded support were both “antiquated” and would be improved by a transition to state control.

But in requesting the sites, local officials said that the capacity was needed. Umair Shah, head of public health for Harris County, where Houston is located, said that the departure of the sites would mean “less testing.”

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said in a June 17 letter to Azar that Dallas city and county needed “more time to establish replacement testing sites.”

“Losing the existing sites at the end of June would be a significant blow to the COVID-19 response efforts in the heart of the country’s fourth-largest metropolitan area,” the letter reads.

Sen. Cruz issued a statement on Friday expressing support for the extension, saying that “now is not the time to end a program that is successfully increasing testing capacity.”

It’s not clear what will happen to the rest of the sites around the country, located in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and New Jersey. Federal support for those sites is set to expire on Tuesday.

Gov. Abbott said in a statement that the sites are “a vital component” of the state’s commitment to testing.

“I thank our federal partners for extending these operations in Texas, and for their flexibility in allocating their resources to the communities of Dallas and Houston that are experiencing a high number of COVID-19 cases right now,” the statement reads.

Opposition to ending federal support for the sites was bipartisan. Democratic lawmakers representing Houston and Dallas sent the Trump administration letters protesting the move, and were joined by Republican electeds in opposing the end of federal support.

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