The Trump administration said Wednesday it will no longer directly run virus testing sites, which it had been doing in hard-hit parts of the country, opting instead to "transition" control of the last of its 13 sites to the states, including seven in Texas.
Administration officials defended the move as necessary to scale up testing at local pharmacies and other retail sites where Americans routinely visit, and they insisted that sites exclusively run by federal bureaucrats were never meant to be permanent.
Still, the move alarmed some lawmakers and prompted swift pushback from at least one local Texas county that warned demand for testing was on the rise and federally backed sites were at capacity.
It comes as President Donald Trump has expressed displeasure with the increased rate of testing nationwide because, he says, it causes case numbers to rise and make the U.S. health crisis look bad. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday predicted as many as 150,000 U.S. deaths related to the virus by July 18.
Daily case numbers in Texas, in particular, have been soaring with 5,5551 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday.
"In May, when (federal officials) made the plan to end support on June 30, we could not have foreseen the continued rise in cases like we have in the past couple of weeks," wrote four House Democrats from Texas in a letter to the administration.
"Without FEMA’s supplies, fiscal aid and personnel, these sites may no longer be able to serve our communities," wrote Texas Reps. Al Green, Sylvia Garcia, Lizzie Fletcher and Sheila Jackson Lee.
Adm. Brett Giroir, as assistant secretary of Health tasked by Trump to coordinate the nation’s testing efforts, said the government is still planning to support testing efforts in Texas and elsewhere, 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. Of the 41 federal sites originally set up, only 13 remained.
The primary difference, he said, is that the states -- not the federal government -- will control the sites.
"There is no reason that a locally unresponsive bulky parallel system needs to occur when the states could happily take these over," he told reporters.
Last month, the government began dispersing $11 billion to states to help them scale up testing. Giroir said the states can use the money to keep the sites open if they want. He also said he spoke with each state governor’s office to confirm the plan to transition control, and they agreed.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"We’re not pulling the rug out from anyone," Giroir said.
"In my opinion, this is not a story" because it represents a "small fraction" of test sites, he added.
That argument might not be enough to placate administration critics who point to early problems in testing and who say the money isn't flowing from federal coffers fast enough to local communities.
Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat whose home state of Washington was among the first to get hit, said the announcement was the latest signal that the administration wasn’t taking testing seriously.
"The pandemic is clearly getting worse in states nationwide—and instead of trying harder to stop it, President Trump is apparently trying harder to hide it," she said in a statement.
Dr. Umair Shah, the executive director of the Harris County Public Health Department in Texas, already asked the government to hold off on any changes until Aug. 30.
"[Harris County Public Health] is noting a significant increase in demand for COVID-19 testing and has been reaching the capacity of 750 tests per sites at both FEMA-supported sites. Therefore, it is clear COVID-19 testing is needed now more than ever," he wrote in a letter to the administration.
In testimony on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said rising case numbers in certain states, including Texas, were "disturbing" and that more needed to be done to expand testing and encourage people to wear masks and socially distance.
"Right now, the next couple of weeks are going to be critical in our ability to address those surgings that we are seeing in Florida, in Texas, in Arizona and other states," Fauci said.
Testifying with Fauci, Giroir said the country is currently testing up to 500,000 people a day -- a dramatic increase from the early days of the pandemic when testing was difficult to find.
He told reporters on Wednesday that he was committed to expanding it further so health officials can catch outbreaks early. But he said he did not think universal testing would be needed.