The Trump administration is sitting on nearly $14 billion in funding provided by Congress to help states with coronavirus testing and contract tracing, two top Democrats said Sunday, calling on the administration to distribute the money “immediately.”
Congress in April approved $25 billion to ramp up testing and tracing and another $2 billion to cover free testing for the uninsured. “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,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
The senators wrote that the administration has full discretion regarding more than $8 billion of the $25 billion in funding but has not released a plan to distribute the money. “It is critical that the Administration disburse the $8 billion immediately with an emphasis on addressing two major unmet needs: contact tracing and collecting data on COVID-19 racial and ethnic disparities,” they wrote.
The senators also said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to award nearly $4 billion that could be used for surveillance and contact tracing efforts.
In a response provided to The Washington Post, HHS said it has distributed $14 billion of the $25 billion but that Congress had failed to give the agency clear and specific guidance on how to spend the rest. “Now members [of Congress] are contacting HHS with their individual priorities and complaining the dollars are not spent to their wishes,” Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the agency, told the Post. “Regardless, HHS is committed to working with Congress to ensure the healthcare delivery system gets the support needed at this time.”
The Democratic letter comes after President Trump on Saturday told supporters at his campaign rally in Tulsa that he had asked officials to slow down coronavirus testing. After saying that the United States has now tested 25 million people, Trump added: "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.’"
Critics quickly called that another example of Trump putting his personal political interests above the health and safety of the nation, but administration officials have downplayed those remarks, saying they were made in jest, were “tongue-in-cheek” or were just “a passing observation.”
In an interview with Scripps News on Monday, the president refused to directly answer whether he had instructed staff to slow down testing. “If we did slow it down, we wouldn't show nearly as many cases,” Trump said. “Frankly, I think we're way ahead of ourselves, if you want to know the truth. We've done too good a job … The reason we have more cases [is] because we do more testing than any other country by far.”
Public health experts say that the recent surge in cases seen in many U.S. states is not just the result of increased testing.