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Democratic senators say Trump administration has been slow to use coronavirus testing funds

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) say the Trump administration hasn’t done enough to spend coronavirus testing funds. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Trump administration has yet to distribute nearly one-third of the funds provided by Congress for coronavirus testing and contact tracing, leading Senate Democrats say.

The Department of Health and Human Services has neither spent nor detailed how it plans to spend $8 billion out of a $25 billion pot to be used for stemming the virus’s spread through diagnostic and antibody testing and contact tracing, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) charge. The funds were provided as part of the fourth pandemic relief bill passed by Congress at the end of April.

“While it has been months since these funds were first appropriated, the administration has failed to disburse significant amounts of this funding, leaving communities without the resources they need to address the significant challenges presented by the virus,” according to a letter the pair wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, obtained by The Washington Post.

In a response, HHS said it has distributed $14 billion of the $25 billion pot of money — most of that total to states and localities, as directed in the legislative text.

An agency spokeswoman noted that Congress largely didn’t provide specific directions for where the rest of the money should go. Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs, said Congress “failed to give the agency clear direction in law for how to spend the money.”

“Now members [of Congress] are contacting HHS with their individual priorities and complaining the dollars are not spent to their wishes,” Caputo said. “Regardless, HHS is committed to working with Congress to ensure the healthcare delivery system gets the support needed at this time.”

The United States has now conducted more than 26 million coronavirus tests, equivalent to about eight percent of the nation’s population. The Trump administration has largely met testing goals Azar laid out in May, after an initial slow response that won it heavy criticism.

Yet the ramped-up testing now reveals a troubling reality: Coronavirus cases are on the rise in many states, as lockdowns ease and Americans start mingling more with each other. While part of the rise may be due to increased testing capturing more cases, that doesn’t fully explain the spikes, experts say.

President Trump appeared to mock the situation at his campaign rally in Tulsa, on Saturday night, calling widespread testing a “double-edged sword.”

“Here’s the bad part,” Trump said. “When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please!”

A White House official quickly downplayed the remarks as “joking.” And White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told CNN Sunday the comment was intended as a “light moment,” and was “tongue-in-cheek.”

But the United States did lag behind other countries in ramping up testing for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The tests are now more widely available, but are not necessarily being used by everyone who might need them.

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Of the $25 billion Congress designated for the testing and contact tracing effort, $11 billion was for states and localities to help them develop, purchase and process covid-19 tests and carrying out contact tracing — a procedure in which people who may have had contact with an infected person are asked to self-isolate for a period of time.

Smaller amounts are earmarked for sub-agencies and offices within HHS, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

But the Democratic senators say about one-third of the money provided by Congress has yet to be sent out the door by HHS, or even designated for anything specific.

Schumer and Murray, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles HHS spending, wrote they’re concerned about the agency’s lack of speed as the country grapples with the virus.

That funding, they wrote, should be disbursed “immediately with an emphasis on addressing two major unmet needs: contact tracing and collecting data on covid-19 racial and ethnic disparities.”

They’re also concerned about the pace at which HHS is awarding another $2 billion to help cover testing costs for uninsured Americans.

“This administration will put our country at grave risk if it tries to declare an early victory, leave lifesaving work undone, and leave resources our communities desperately need sitting untouched,” the letter says.