In reversal, Trump administration will extend support to coronavirus testing sites in Texas

The extension comes as the state faces a surge in new coronavirus cases.

June 26, 2020, 6:44 PM

The Trump administration on Friday announced plans to maintain several coronavirus testing sites in Texas, after a bipartisan group of lawmakers and county officials pushed back on plans to sunset federal support.

In a statement, the Department of Health and Human Services said it had granted a two-week extension to support five sites that were scheduled to transition to state control on June 30.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced plans to hand over 13 sites to a number of states, as part of an effort to transition the national testing strategy into localized sites, such as pharmacies and retail stores, managed by state and local health authorities with federal grants.

"There is no reason that a locally unresponsive bulky parallel system needs to occur when the states could happily take these over," Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of Health tasked with coordinating coronavirus testing, told reporters on Wednesday.

But the move, which the Department of Health and Human Services said was made after consultation with governors in the respective states, sparked criticism from lawmakers in both parties.

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In Texas, which reported a record high of 5,996 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz called for a reversal of the government’s plans.

"Now is not the time to end a program that is working and successfully increasing testing capacity—especially for underserved communities in the state," they wrote in a letter to HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday.

PHOTO: People participate in a self-swabbing coronavirus COVID-19 testing site at the Lilburn First Baptist Church in Lilburn, Georgia, June 26, 2020.
People participate in a self-swabbing coronavirus COVID-19 testing site at the Lilburn First Baptist Church in Lilburn, Georgia, June 26, 2020.
Erik S. Lesser/EPA via Shutterstock

In an interview with ABC News on Friday ahead of the administration’s policy change, House Democratic Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., the chair of the House select committee monitoring the government’s coronavirus response, called the decision to sunset some testing sites premature.

"To get wrapped around this process, we’ve got to have testing, testing, testing," he said. "It’s just a little bit foolhardy to withdraw or defund testing sites in the middle of this pandemic."

Giroir on Wednesday said the government is still planning to support testing in these states, including providing states swabs, reagents and other supplies.

He said the federal government had set up the 41 sites early on in the pandemic as a stopgap measure until local doctors, pharmacies and other retail sites could take over.

In Colorado, a community-based testing site in Puebla is still scheduled to close on June 30, a spokesperson for the Colorado State Emergency Operations Center told ABC News, while another site in Grand Junction had already closed and transferred remaining supplies to the state.

The spokesperson noted that Colorado has "vastly increased access to testing statewide," including at private-sector locations.

In Texas, officials in Harris and Dallas Counties confirmed to ABC News that the community-based sites would still be up and running beyond June 30, even if the federal government were to pull support.

Dr. Umair Shah, the executive director of Harris County Public Health, said that federal support would allow the county, which includes Houston, to free up resources to improve testing capacity in other areas, including under-served communities of color.

"Any support we can get from a federal, state level will only augment what we can do here locally," he said.

In Dallas, Mayor Eric Johnson said he was "heartened and relieved" by the extension, which he had requested earlier this month.

The federal government had been providing the capacity to conduct 2,000 tests a day in Dallas, where the greater county reported 496 new cases on Friday.

The city said it would still close one federal testing site after June 30 and would work to double the capacity of the other to 1,000 daily tests. It has also signed a contract with a private vendor for a new site that will collect up to 500 tests each day.

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