Under pressure, feds reverse decision to close coronavirus testing sites
At his April 9 press briefing Trump said widespread testing to see if it is safe for workers to return to the job is "never going to happen. Steve Helber | AP

PHILADELPHIA—Under pressure from Pennsylvania lawmakers and a report on National Public Radio, the GOP Trump government’s Health and Human Services Department abruptly reversed a ruling to cut off dollars to some 41 community coronavirus testing sites nationwide. Otherwise, at least two of the drive-through sites would have closed April 10.

Trump’s HHS protested that state-funded sites would replace the ones it was closing, and provided lists of grants to the affected states – including more than a dozen sites in Pennsylvania.

But that didn’t satisfy the lawmakers, as the dollars for the federally funded sites concentrated on testing nurses and other front-line workers against the pandemic.

And those testing dollars, until the latest round of grants, were virtually the only federal funds flowing to the states to help them battle against the pandemic, which has now sickened more than 450,000 people nationwide. Some 16,000 have died, including nurses and other health care providers.

HHS’s plan to close the sites came to light when five Pennsylvania lawmakers, led by first-term Rep. Madeleine Dean (D), learned of the agency’s decision to cut off the money to the only community testing site in Montgomery County, Pa., in the Philadelphia suburbs. They quickly fired off a letter of protest to Trump HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

“Every member of the community must have the option to get tested should symptoms persist,” Dean, three other representatives from both parties and Sen. Bob Casey (D) wrote to Azar.

“Community testing must remain funded and available in Montco — it helps us combat the spread of COVID-19 and contain this pandemic.”

Through April 8, the site tested nearly 4,000 people, a fact sheet from Dean’s office said. The letter noted Pennsylvania’s “case count is expected to increase in the following weeks and Pennsylvania’s peak is approaching.” So coronavirus “testing sites play an instrumental role — and are necessary to continue the fight against this epidemic.”

At his coronavirus task force briefing on April 9, Trump said widespread COVD-19 testing to assess whether workers can safely go back to their workplaces is “never going to happen,” but said the U.S. economy can begin reopening anyway.

In another indication of the need for testing, National Public Radio, on April 10, quoted Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter as warning the city could be the next “hot spot” for coronavirus cases on the East Coast.

“Montgomery County does not have the resources to keep the site operational without the support provided by the federal government – including testing kits, PPE (personal protective equipment) and the contract with LabCorp” to evaluate the results, the lawmakers’ letter added.

The key federal aid was the contract with LabCorp, local officials said. The county would not have been able to get an agreement with the private testing firm, one of the two largest in the U.S., on its own.

“Given the instrumental role the testing sites have played in testing frontline health workers and essential personnel, we fear our heroes and others will face the risk of unknowingly spreading COVID-19,” the official name for the coronavirus, the Pennsylvanians wrote Azar. HHS also announced a closure in Colorado Springs, NPR reported.

After National Public Radio aired its report, centered on the Montgomery County site, the day before the scheduled closure, HHS reversed course in a letter to the lawmakers. It also said it would keep other sites open, too. But the Trump agency didn’t respond to the solons’ other demand: Why it planned to close them in the first place.

Even without the answer to that query, the reversal pleased Dean.

“I’m relieved that HHS has reversed its decision which would have closed our community testing site in Montgomery County tomorrow — we know that in this pandemic the only way we will move forward is to test, find out where the disease is, try to mitigate, slow the spread, and treat earlier — that’s the way we are going to save lives,” she said.

At his coronavirus task force press briefing on Thursday, April 9, Trump said widespread COVID-19 testing to assess whether workers can safely go back to their workplaces is “never going to happen,” but said the U.S. economy can begin re-opening anyway.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.