KEY POINTS

  • The Trump administration plans to close 13 coronavirus testing sites to slash the demand for PPE kits and trained health care providers
  • “FEMA’s removal in this moment could be harmful and irresponsible,” said a letter sent by four House Democrats
  • “The federal government is not ending funding or support for COVID-19 testing sites,” said Adm. Brett Giroir from HHS

A bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans from both Houses of Congress strongly opposed a plan by the Trump administration to deny federal funding for 13 COVID-19 testing sites across five states. The defunding will take effect June 30.

Among the loudest voices decrying this move being implemented by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were lawmakers from Texas, whose state is among the hardest hit by a massive upsurge in coronavirus cases.

Seven of the 13 testing sites, which are part of the Community-Based Testing Sites (CBTS) program, are in Texas. The other sites are in Illinois, New Jersey, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

HHS made the decision to halt direct funding for CBTS testing centers in Texas. It claimed this was necessary to slash the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and trained health care providers.

An HHS spokesman confirmed the centers will be defunded. He said this was needed to transition the CBTS program to a public-private model that will expand testing at retail and pharmacy locations at full federal expense. It also meant the federal government was broadening its community testing support to a more sustainable model.

The transition will include "continued support of retail and pharmacy partnerships in more than 600 locations." It will also offer COVID-19 testing at over 1,300 federally qualified health centers nationwide.

However, Texas lawmakers aren't buying this HHS explanation. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) urged both HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to grant an extension on the funding.

“While I support the CBTS (Community-Based Testing Sites) program’s transition to a public-private model that will expand testing at retail and pharmacy locations at full federal expense, maintaining the CBTS drive-through sites is critical to Texas’ testing capacity,” said Cruz in a letter handed to HHS and FEMA on Thursday.

Cruz pointed out some of Texas' largest cities where these CBTS sites are located are experiencing single-day records in new COVID-19 cases. He said now is not the time to end federal support for a program "that is working and successfully increasing testing capacity -- especially for underserved communities in the state."

A driver drops off her coronavirus test at a COVID-19 testing site in Los Angeles, California A driver drops off her coronavirus test at a COVID-19 testing site in Los Angeles, California Photo: AFP / Frederic J. BROWN

Four House Democrats from Texas also sent a letter to the HHS and the FEMA earlier this week urging both agencies to continue providing federal assistance until Aug. 31.

"Texas continues to set records for the number of new cases and hospitalizations and Harris County leads the state in the number of confirmed cases,” said the letter. “At this time, we must expand the number of people tested per day to prevent further spread of the virus.”

The Democrats argued withdrawing support would place a heavy burden on the Houston Health Department, Harris County Public Health and their partners. They said losing federal funding for these sites could hinder their continued development of a contact tracing system.

“FEMA’s removal in this moment could be harmful and irresponsible,” said the letter.

On the other hand, HHS Assistant Secretary Adm. Brett Giroir denied the federal government will abandon the CBTS locations.

“The federal government is not ending funding or support for COVID-19 testing sites,” said Adm. Giroir Thursday. “We are transitioning 13 sites from the original now antiquated program to the more efficient and effective testing sites.

He claimed the CBTS locations will receive financial support through the $10 billion in aid Congress approved for testing and contact tracing.

The move to close down these centers comes at a particularly bad time. Texas is struggling to contain the highest number of coronavirus cases that began popping up since reopening businesses.

It reported 5,996 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, 5,551 Wednesday and 5,489 Tuesday. The number on Tuesday was the first time the state had hit 5,000 cases.