Trump administration retiring 13 federally operated COVID-19 testing sites amid sharp rise in cases

The Trump administration has announced that it is currently “transitioning” the last remaining federally operated coronavirus testing sites, of which there are 13 located in five states, to be re-established within local pharmacies in what The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says is an attempt to “increase testing capacity.”

The move comes after President Donald Trump said he had asked his administration to slow down coronavirus testing because robust testing turns up too many cases of COVID-19.

Trump has falsely associated the rise in cases with the rise in testing in the U.S. 

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The virus has been blamed for over 120,000 U.S. deaths — the highest toll in the world — and more than 2.3 million confirmed infections nationwide as of June 24, 2020. On Wednesday, the widely cited University of Washington computer model of the outbreak projected nearly 180,000 deaths by Oct. 1.

Adm. Brett Giroir, the White House’s coronavirus testing chief, said in a statement that “The federal government is not ending funding or support for COVID-19 testing sites.”

“On the contrary, we have expanded from the original 41 sites to over 600 in 48 states and the District of Columbia in the federal bundled payment program to pharmacies, and enabled over 1400 additional pharmacy sites through regulatory flexibility empowering pharmacists and facilitating billing and reimbursement,” added Giroir. “In addition, 93% of all Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) offer COVID-19 testing; thousands of sites. HHS will continue to increase testing capacity overall, and make it more accessible especially to underserved communities.”

Giroir argued that the the 13 testing sites are part of an “antiquated” early testing system, adding that the upcoming plan to host testing sites in local pharmacies is “more efficient.”

“All 13 sites were provided an extra 30 days from the original transition date in May, and I personally spoke with Governors from all 5 states involved, and/or their leadership designees, who agreed that it was the appropriate time to transition out of the original 13 sites and into the thousands of new testing options,” Giroir said.

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The move by HHS comes amid an apparent decline in new cases in early U.S. hot spots such as New York and New Jersey, while several other states set single-day case records Wednesday, including Arizona, California, Mississippi, Nevada and Texas. 

One county health official from Texas sent a letter to HHS addressing the continued need for testing and support from federally run testing sites that the department is planning to retire.

"[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," wrote Dr. Umair Shah, the executive director of the Harris County Public Health Department in Texas.

In the letter, Dr. Shah urged the federal government to continue federal testing sites until at least Aug. 30. 

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Currently, novel coronavirus cases are sharply on the rise in the U.S., and medical experts have warned that we are still in the early stages of the pandemic, yet the White House has continued to reel back its efforts in fighting the virus. 

Earlier this month, an HHS spokesperson confirmed that Giroir was stepping down from his role overseeing coronavirus testing at FEMA and returning to his regular post at the Department of Health and Human Services.“While Adm. Giroir will remain engaged with the COVID-19 testing and related efforts, many of the day-to-day management and operations of testing are being transitioned to HHS operating divisions,” the spokesperson said. 

Vice President Mike Pence had previously said the White House Coronavirus Task Force would wind down its work by early June. 

“I think we’re having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level," Pence said.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, said the federal government would still keep a close eye on the data. "It took us a while to build that capacity and we’ll make sure that we’re watching that at a federal level," she said.

The task force hasn't held a public briefing since late April, according to logs of the official White House schedule.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. This story was reported from Los Angeles.