UPDATE: The Department of Health and Human Services is now saying they have halted their plans to end support for coronavirus testing sites to states on Friday, according to a Thursday night report from NPR.
The report goes to say that localities will be able to choose whether they want federal funding and assistance to continue.
Original story below:
Days before the expected peak of the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration says it is going ahead with plans to end federal support for COVID-19 testing on Friday, transitioning the responsibility for managing and funding the sites to states.
Across the country, 40 Community-Based Testing Sites that FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services established will either be shuttered or taken over by state governments. The FEMA/HHS sites were created to rapidly scale up testing abilities nationwide at the beginning of the crisis.
A FEMA spokesperson said that the federal testing sites were always meant to be temporary: “The Community-Based Testing Sites (CBTS) program was intended as an immediate high impact intervention to bring initial testing capabilities to critical areas across the country… now that the FDA has given approval for individuals to self-administer COVID-19 nasal swab tests at testing sites, the demand for PPE and trained health care providers will significantly be reduced.”
But Drexel University epidemiology and biostatistics professor Usama Bilal told the station that the lack of federal funding will hit the state’s poor the most.
“Any time a reduction in accessibility in a health resource happens, it is the most vulnerable populations that suffer,” Bilal continued. “People with access to more resources (wealthier, more educated, etc.) tend to have the ability to access those resources through other means (in this case, private testing through referral from the doctor they usually see). Low-income people tend to access health care much more often through urgent care (which isn’t being used that much these days in cities like Philadelphia, for fear of the epidemic).”
Valerie Arkoosh, chair of Montgomery County Commissioners office, one of the hardest-hit counties in Philadelphia’s suburbs where 1,294 have tested positive and 19 have died, expressed concern in a statement because of the expected surge of cases. “While I’m grateful to have had federal and state support for our successful community-based testing site, I am understandably disappointed that the supplies and the federal contract for lab testing are ending just as we are heading into the surge here in southeastern Pennsylvania,” Arkoosh said.
According to CNN, Vice President Mike Pence has been touting public-private partnerships that have “laid the foundation,” to fill some of the gaps left behind without federal funds, like drive-thru coronavirus testing sites. But so far only five locations from major retailers are currently offering drive-thru testing. And none are open to the general public.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden reacted in astonishment to the story late Thursday, writing on Twitter, “I can’t believe I have to say this, but we should be expanding the number of testing sites and surging the number of tests — not reducing them. Testing is key to finding a way out of this crisis.”
Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter on Thursday to blast the administration’s decision, writing, “If anything, we should err on the side of testing ‘too much’ — we’re *nowhere* near that. Trump ending support now will cost lives.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren also took to Twitter on Thursday, calling the move dangerous. “We need a surge in testing capacity—not an end to it. This decision is absolutely irresponsible and potentially deadly,” Warren wrote.
Recently, the White House Correspondents Association announced the president is requiring reporters who attend White House briefings to be tested for the virus — and presumably, these tests will be federally-funded. Now, Trump needs to make sure that all Americans, not just the press corps who come into his orbit, continue to have free access to this vital test.
And many areas have not even reached their peak in cases, so transitioning these sites from federal management to state management now is terrible timing. For example, as WHYY reports, multiple projections show Pennsylvania is nearing its peak of coronavirus cases and will be forced to shutter two testing sites due to the transition.