US shifts virus testing support, raising concern in Texas

By Anna Edney Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is shifting support for COVID-19 testing centers to private pharmacies and health centers, causing concern in Texas where the bulk of government-backed sites remain and where virus cases are skyrocketing.

There are 13 federally supported testing sites in five states, seven of which are in Texas, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Federal backing for the 13 sites ends June 30, when it will be refocused on 600 pharmacy sites and 1,300 health centers, Brett Giroir, the assistant U.S. health secretary, said in an email.

The shift comes as Texas is among several states now seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases after reopening. On Tuesday, Texas recorded more than 5,000 new cases, a record for the state.

“It is clear COVID-19 testing is needed now more than ever,” Umair Shah, the head of Public Health in Harris County, which includes hard-hit Houston, wrote in a letter last week requesting extended aid until Aug. 30. The intensive-care unit in Houston is nearly full, according to local officials

The move by HHS shifts the support away from an “antiquated program” to “more efficient and effective testing sites,” Giroir said, adding that he had talked to governors or their designees from all five states involved.

They “agreed that it was the appropriate time to transition out of the original 13 sites and into the thousands of new testing options,” he said.

He also said HHS is increasing testing capacity overall. This contradicts President Donald Trump at a rally on Saturday saying he told his administration to rein in screening. Giroir and other health officials told House lawmakers Tuesday they hadn’t spoken to Trump in at least two weeks.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, opposes the plan to shift funds.

“I know there’s concern, concern I share, over some of the statements being made about withdrawing federal support for coronavirus testing in Texas at the end of June. It’s pretty clear to me, and I think it’s clear to all of us, that with the uptick of cases, now is not a time to retreat from our vigilance in testing,” Cornyn said.

The 13 federally supported sites were part of an original 41 in 12 states set up with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Support for those ran out in May and was extended for just the 13 sites.

FEMA said in a statement the sites were meant to be short-term and focused initially on health care workers and first responders.