with Paulina Firozi
Trump administration officials moved quickly to stamp out headlines they were scaling back coronavirus testing just as cases started rising again.
Their boss, President Trump, suggested multiple times that he directed officials to slow down testing to avoid case numbers climbing higher – even as the White House insisted he was joking. And now some reporters were contextualizing the news of the federal government ending funding and support for 13 testing site in light of those remarks.
Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS:
The Trump administration is set to end federal funding and support on June 30th for 13 coronavirus testing sites, which are currently located in five states: Illinois, New Jersey, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas.— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) June 24, 2020
Context: Pres Trump has said testing is a "double edged sword."
Matt Shuham, a reporter for Talking Points Memo:
“As coronavirus cases continue to rise nationally, President Trump admitted he wants to slow down coronavirus testing and now the federal government will no longer support two testing sites in Illinois,” Jordan Abudayyeh, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s press secretary, told TPM.— Matt Shuham (@mattshuham) June 24, 2020
“When I saw the way things were going, I called [Brett Giroir] and he said let’s go,” Michael Caputo, Health and Human Service’s assistant secretary for public affairs, told me. “Whoever was spinning this was gaining traction among legit reporters.”
Caputo and Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health, quickly convened an afternoon press call. They explained that out of thousands of testing sites around the nation, they were transferring only a fraction – 13 remaining federal-run sites – over to state and local authorities.
The HHS officials said moving away from federal-run testing sites was the plan all along.
These sites, seven of which are located in Texas, had been set up in March in hot-spot areas before state and localities had adequate testing capacity. There were 48 originally, and all but 13 have already been closed or handed over to area authorities.
“These locations — staffed with U.S. Public Health Service officers and paid for with federal money — were designed to end in May, after newer iterations of the testing program came into existence,” The Post's Amy Goldstein reports. “Those include 600 sites run primarily by private pharmacies, plus 13,000 locations run by community health centers.”
Giroir stressed the remaining 13 federal-run sites are no longer necessary given the expanded capacities, noting that the agency recently gave states $11 billion for testing support provided through a congressional relief bill. He also said the federal government is still providing swabs and testing kits to states and local communities, who control public health.
“We are not withdrawing federal support,” he said, “Federal support is coming in a different way.”
The episode illustrated how Trump's own officials can get caught in the middle between the president and the press.
Trump had made a chain of erratic remarks about testing, saying at a rally on Saturday that “I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down,’” — and then, after the White House said he was joking, insisted “I don’t kid.”
The president’s statements put leaders at HHS on the defense just as they're facing a troubling rise in cases and hospitalizations around the country. Yesterday, new cases reached their highest single-day level yet.
The real news today is that the U.S. set a record for new cases today: 38,672.— The COVID Tracking Project (@COVID19Tracking) June 24, 2020
The previous record was April 25 at 36,001. pic.twitter.com/pcFcLUeeKk
Giroir asserted over and over again the Trump administration is doing all it can to keep ramping up testing – and hadn't been instructed to slow it down.
“No one has told me, suggested, intimated, passed a note, hinted, sent a carrier pigeon that we should decrease testing," Giroir said. "It’s quite the opposite.”
About half a million tests are now being conducted in the United States every day, a dramatic change from the winter and early spring, when the country struggled to quickly ramp up testing. Giroir and top infectious disease official Anthony Fauci had promised at a congressional hearing on Tuesday that 40 million to 50 million tests will be conducted monthly by the fall — and Giroir reiterated that yesterday.
Caputo stayed mostly quiet during the 50-minute call, in which Giroir explained and took questions on how the agency is approaching the testing sites, which are now located in places such as community health centers and pharmacies.
But Caputo broke in near the end of the call with some sharp words for reporters.
“You’ve been spun up; someone had given you disinformation,” Caputo told those listening. “You’re spending an hour on a telephone call and we are taking people away from the fight on the coronavirus so your information can be corrected.”
The remarks, which Caputo delivered in a raised tone, resulted in some chatter on Twitter.
Robert King, reporter for FierceHealthcare:
He was definitely yelling at all of us.— Robert King (@rking_19) June 24, 2020
Caputo said he wasn't “yelling."
I wasn’t yelling, I’m Italian. 🤷— Michael R. Caputo (@MichaelRCaputo) June 24, 2020
Nate Weixel, health reporter for the Hill:
yeah seemed like Rob either was still muted, or was no longer on the call. And then we got Caputo'd— Nathaniel Weixel (@NateWeixel) June 24, 2020
Look ma! I'm a verb!— Michael R. Caputo (@MichaelRCaputo) June 24, 2020
Caputo, who joined HHS in April, told me he had intended all along to address the issue at the call's end, after reporters had a chance to ask questions. Caputo said he was disappointed by the way in which reporters initially characterized why the 13 testing sites were closing.
“It’s so dishonest,” he said. “I went to journalism school … my profs would have nailed me for this.”
Yet the decision still garnered criticism from political leaders in Texas.
The explanation about the closures from HHS officials didn’t entirely pacify local officials, who had previously criticized the decision to pull the federal funds, or the state’s two Republican senators.
Politico's David Lim:
A spokesperson for Sen. @tedcruz on HHS' decision to cease federal funding for the seven testing sites in Texas at the end of the month:— David Lim (@davidalim) June 25, 2020
"Sen. Cruz has urged and will continue to urge HHS and FEMA to extend the community testing sites in Texas.” https://t.co/zdWOMpDGBy
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said the shift in who runs the sites “puts a strain” on the city’s resources, Amy reports.
“After Giroir’s conference call, Turner criticized the shift at a news conference about that city’s spiking coronavirus cases,” Amy writes. “Highlighting that Houston was averaging 650 new cases a day, he said two large testing sites in the city are ‘hugely important.’”
Turner said their transfer to local control “is going to pull resources away from other sites” elsewhere in the city. “It puts a strain on us, but those sites are too important to shut down,” he said.
Ahh, oof and ouch
AHH: West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) has forced out his state's public health commissioner.
Cathy Slemp abruptly resigned after the governor publicly questioned the accuracy of coronavirus data and vented during a news conference that the state's active virus caseload may have been overstated, the Associated Press reports.
According to the governor's office, Slemp was asked for her resignation after Justice had expressed a “lack of confidence” in her to Bill Crouch, secretary of the West Virginia health department. A health department spokeswoman said in a separate statement that there were discrepancies related to virus caseload data at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County, the AP writes.
“Slemp, who was a regular feature of the governor’s daily virus news conferences, has decades of public health experience," the AP writes. "She was previously the acting state health officer and was the founding director of the state’s public health emergency preparedness and response programs.”
OOF: The number of coronavirus cases in the United States hit the highest single-day total.
More than 36,000 new cases were reported by state health departments across the country yesterday. That exceeded a previous high of 34,203 cases from April 25.
Three states reported record-high single-day infections. California reported more than 7,000 new cases, Florida reported more than 5,500 new infections, and Oklahoma reported 482 new cases, “hitting a new rolling average for the 12th day in a row. That average is up about 83 percent from June 17,” Hannah Knowles and Jacqueline Dupree report for The Post’s live blog.
There were also record new infections in Tulsa County, where Trump held a mass indoor rally over the weekend.
Dozens of Secret Service officers and agents who were at the event were told to self-quarantine after two of their colleagues tested positive for the coronavirus.
“The Secret Service instructed employees who worked the Tulsa event to stay at home for 14 days when they returned from the weekend trip,” Carol D. Leonnig and Joshua Partlow report. “The order came in the wake of the discovery — hours before the president’s Saturday evening rally — that at least six advance staffers who helped organize the trip had tested positive for the virus, including two Secret Service employees. Another two advance staffers tested positive after Trump returned to Washington on Sunday.”
It's not yet clear how Trump’s rally may have affected the case count in Tulsa. The county hit a record of 259 new cases yesterday, which Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa Health Department, described as part of “steep upward trends” seen across the state.
OUCH: Deaths have not been rising as fast as new infections are surging, but health experts warn that could change.
“Deaths always lag considerably behind cases,” Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, told lawmakers this week.
“Which means Arizona, Texas and Florida, states that reopened early and now are experiencing runaway infection rates, are likely to be burying more dead in July,” Lenny Bernstein, Rachel Weiner and Joel Achenbach report.
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security, described a ripple effect as younger people, who are accounting for some of the spike in overall cases, pass the virus on to older people. There may be fewer deaths among younger patients, but “it may take time to find its way to older, vulnerable people, who are more likely to die,” Nuzzo said.
Lenny, Rachel and Joel add: “Even if the death toll does not rebound to previous levels, the current surge will have serious consequences, said Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist who teaches at the University of Arizona. For some people who do not become critically ill, the virus can cause severe, and sometimes long-lasting, problems, she said.”
Public health officials are gearing up for an unprecedented respiratory illness season. That means making millions of extra flu vaccine doses.
Officials and vaccine manufacturers are producing extra vaccine doses to protect those who are most vulnerable to influenza and to the novel coronavirus, Lena H. Sun reports. While the flu shot does not protect against the coronavirus, disease experts say it will be critical to reduce cases of the flu to make room in hospitals and medical facilities tackling the ongoing pandemic.
It’s unclear if the convergence of two highly contagious viruses will encourage more people to get a flu vaccine.
“Even though flu season doesn’t begin until the fall, major flu vaccine manufacturers say they plan to boost production by about 10 percent, to about 189 million doses, up from 170 million doses last year, to ensure enough doses exist for an anticipated surge in people seeking flu shots,” she writes.
The effort includes a rare move from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to buy 7 million flu vaccine doses from manufacturers directly, CDC Director Robert Redfield said. Those doses — 14 times the 500,000 doses the agency usually buys for adults — will be distributed to states for adult vaccination.
Lena adds: “Health officials are especially concerned about people at higher risk for both the coronavirus and influenza, including residents and employees at long-term care facilities, African Americans, Hispanics, and people with underlying medical conditions.”
The latest on the ACA
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released a plan yesterday to expand the Affordable Care Act.
The announcement came as the administration is set to file arguments in the Supreme Court to strike the law down.
“On Thursday, the Trump administration is expected to file papers with the Supreme Court arguing that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. Pelosi wants her bill on the House floor Monday,” the Associated Press’s Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reports.
“Pelosi announced an upcoming floor vote on her measure, setting up a debate that will juxtapose the Democrats’ top policy issue, Trump’s unrelenting efforts to dismantle Obama’s legacy, and the untamed coronavirus pandemic,” he writes. “… Her bill would expand subsidies, allowing more people to qualify for coverage under the ACA. It would financially squeeze some states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the health law. And it would empower Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices — a position Trump once favored but later abandoned.”
But the legislation has no path forward in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Democratic-aligned group Protect Our Care released a video this morning targeting the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to overturn the ACA.
The digital ad, first in The Health 202, will run in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina as the Trump administration and Republican attorneys general prepare to file briefings in the lawsuit to overturn the health-care law.
The ad references the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 120,000 Americans and led to job losses and the loss of health insurance coverage for millions. It chides Republican lawmakers and the administration for trying to strip health coverage, while praising Democratic lawmakers for “taking this crisis seriously.”
“As millions of Americans are facing devastating coronavirus and health-care bills, President Trump and his allies are playing games with American lives,” the ad says, “aggressively pushing a lawsuit that would rip health insurance away from more than 20 million people; eliminate protections for 135 million Americans with pre-existing conditions, including more than 2 million Americans with coronavirus; and unleash chaos on our health-care system.”
In the states
New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are asking travelers coming from areas with high coronavirus infection rates to quarantine for 14 days.
The new rules, which took effect at midnight, come as the three states have seen infections slow while other states across the South and in the West are experiencing surges.
“New York will be enforcing the measure with judicial orders and fines starting at $2,000, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said, while the other states are not penalizing people for violating the ‘travel advisory,’” Hannah Knowles reports in the live blog. “Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said ‘stricter measures’ could follow if people do not heed the quarantine.”
Around the world
Global health authorities are rushing to acquire more oxygen equipment for patients in poorer nations.
“Many patients severely ill with Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, require help with breathing at some point,” the New York Times’s Donald G. McNeil Jr. reports. “But now the epidemic is spreading rapidly in South Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa, regions of the world where many hospitals are poorly equipped and lack the ventilators, tanks and other equipment necessary to save patients whose lungs are failing.”
The World Health Organization wants to raise $250 million to help bring oxygen supplies to areas in need. The organization has estimated the worldwide need for oxygen is 620,000 cubic meters each day, equal to 88,000 large cylinders.
Here are a few more stories to catch up on this morning:
How outbreaks happen
- A group of students from the University of Texas at Austin returned from a spring break trip to a Mexican beach resort on March 19, the same day the Trump administration urged people to stop traveling internationally. Within two weeks, 60 of the 183 travelers tested positive for the coronavirus, Rachel Weiner reports.
More from the states:
- An Oregon county rescinded an exemption for people of color from its new face mask mandate, citing a wave of racist remarks driven by news of the exemption, Hannah Knowles and Meryl Kornfield write for The Post’s live blog.
- In Austin, some medical labs’ use of a fax machine is being blamed for a slowdown of coronavirus test results, Candace Buckner writes for the live blog.
- The bungled study on the benefits of hydroxychloroquine is fueling questions about the use of big sets of health data, which have long been hailed as important for revolutionizing medical research, Politico’s Vincent Manancourt and Ashleigh Furlong report.