Update: A few hours after TPM published this report, the Trump administration announced that it was extending support for five testing sites in Texas, for two weeks.
In the middle of a phone call with TPM Thursday, Randy Payton, a city employee and the incident commander for two federally-backed COVID-19 testing sites in Dallas, paused for an update on the latest figures.
“Sixty-eight thousand tests” since the sites got running in March, he marveled. “How ‘bout that? That’s a lot of tests.”
Payton listed off the teams that comprise his motley drive-through testing crew with a hint of pride: City employees, fire rescue and law enforcement, health care workers from Parkland Hospital, and state and federal staff shuttling tests and recording data.
Over three months at the two sites — Ellis Davis Field House and the American Airlines Center, neither of which charge a fee or require insurance — Payton’s tally of 68,000 tests accounts for about 4% of Texas’ total.
The federal bit has been key. The Trump administration is providing all testing-related supplies and lab contracts for the sites, even courier services for testing swabs, Payton said. That’s because the locations are what’s known as “Community-Based Testing Sites” (CBTS) — a joint venture between FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services, and a success amidst the federal government’s often stumbling response.
There are just 13 federally supported testing centers left nationwide, down from 41. Seven are in Texas.
And that’s about to change: TPM reported on Tuesday that the Trump administration will end its support for the remaining locations on June 30th. Or as the administration’s testing czar Brett Giroir said the following day, the testing sites are “transitioning to state control and state funding.”
The two sites in Dallas will be transferred to a private vendor funded by the county and city, and run without the feds’ help, beginning next month. Others around the country are being transferred to state support, or closed entirely.
Payton, who otherwise works as an assistant director at Dallas Water Utilities, told TPM he would stick around “through the transition, at least.”
The feds have undeniably bad timing. Texas is facing a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases. On Thursday Gov. Greg Abbott paused his much-anticipated “reopening” schedule and cancelled some elective surgeries to clear space in hospitals. On Friday morning he went further, shutting down bars entirely, capping restaurant capacity at 50% and requiring local approval for outdoor gatherings of 100 or more people.
A record number of Texans, 4,739, were hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday; that was the 14th day in a row the state set a new record. And if New York’s past surge is any indication, there are many more suffering with unconfirmed cases of the disease who have not been counted.
In that light, the federal withdrawal is a bit confusing to outside observers, and has left some powerful Texans nervous. A growing wave of public officials around the state — including Sens. Ted Cruz (R) and John Cornyn (R) — have called on the administration to extend the program.
The deadline for the federal government’s withdrawal from some of the testing sites has been pushed back before, and though several local officials insisted to TPM that they will be able to fill Uncle Sam’s boots, many of them also said they wished the federal program would continue.
“Yes I do,” Payton said, when asked whether he hoped the feds would stay involved.
“I’ll say this to you. I think that it’s everybody’s duty to provide testing to every community out there, especially the underserved communities. And to get that, and to get the capacity we need, I think it’s going to take local, state and federal funding to accomplish that.”
Four hours south, in Harris County, the public health department runs two CBTS locations. Houston, the Harris County seat, runs another two sites that the mayor has pledged to keep open even without federal help.
If the administration pulls out at the end of the month, as it has said it will, the county will either turn to the state or dip into its own CARES Act funding to keep its two sites running, said Mac McClendon, the county health department’s director of preparedness and response.
But, McClendon told TPM, the department “would absolutely welcome FEMA’s support moving forward.”
“I don’t get to make those decisions at the federal level,” he said. “But if they were to offer up an extension to us, we would certainly accept it. We have a well-run, smooth machine right now, and we’d like to keep it that way.”
The feds could also simply keep paying for the sites’ supplies, Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator under President Obama, told TPM.
“If you want states to be in charge, just pay them and let them run it,” Fugate said. “But if this is about money, I’m like, really? We’re seeing rates higher now than we did at the beginning in Texas, and now it’s about money.”
Demand has surged over the past two weeks, with the 550 allotted tests at each of Payton’s two sites running out after two or three hours each morning. Payton said his sites are also processing tests from two mobile units and two walk-up testing locations under his supervision — for nursing home residents and people without cars, respectively.
In all, Payton said, “these federally supported Community-Based Test Sites are averaging about 1,600 tests a day.” Harris County’s two sites are also going through 1,600 tests a day, McClendon said.
In a letter last Wednesday to Health Secretary Alex Azar, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson wrote that “The City of Dallas and Dallas County need 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.”
Although the city has increased private testing capacity, he wrote, many of those sites require insurance or charge a fee — “which restricts access, particularly for underserved communities.” (The Dallas Morning-News first reported the letter, which the city subsequently shared with TPM. Read it in full below.)
But the administration appears to be digging in. On a press call Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services yelled that reporters covering the testing news were “undermining the public health system.” Giroir, the testing czar, suggested on Tuesday that pharmacies and Community Health Centers would help bolster capacity.
One such Community Health Center, Houston-based Legacy, told TPM in a statement that “the need for testing will be amplified if FEMA pulls out of these sites.”
“This is not the time to scale down testing; it is time to support our work in the community,” the statement added.
Payton granted that the locally-funded vendor would eventually get back up to speed at his two locations, though he noted that the American Airlines Center site would be shut down entirely and moved somewhere else.
“Are they able to meet the same demand levels [in the first couple days]? Probably not,” he speculated of his potential replacements. “It’ll be a slow start.”
Still, the incident commander is holding out hope.
“We were moving to close down these sites twice already,” he said. “So I would always keep my eyes open to see if — perhaps, you never know — the federal government may come at the last minute and go, ‘Okay, we’ll extend it 30 days.’ That’s happened a couple times.”
Kate Riga and Josh Kovensky contributed reporting.
Read the Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson’s letter to the Health Secretary Alex Azar below: