Washington Insider-- Tuesday

Pace of Virus Testing Criticized

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

China Halts Imports From Tyson Plant As Workers Test Positive For COVID-19

China suspended poultry imports from a Tyson Foods plant in Arkansas where hundreds of employees tested positive for COVID-19.

The suspension issued Sunday covered products that have arrived in China or are about to arrive there, according to China’s General Administration of Customs, but there was no indication given on the number of shipments or tonnage potentially involved.

Tyson Foods said it was looking into the situation.

U.S. officials from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have insisted there is no sign that food is a transmission method for COVID-19. Tyson on Friday said it had tested 3,748 of its employees at seven of its Arkansas facilities from June 4-13 and 481 tested positive for COVID-19. About 95% showed no signs of infection when they were tested.

China has stepped up testing of imported products and has asked firms exporting products to the country to declare their products do not contain COVID-19 in the wake of an outbreak at a major wholesale market in China.


Trump Administration WOTUS Rule Survives One Initial Court Test

The Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule put forth by the Trump administration to replace the Obama-era version will go into effect today after a federal judge in San Francisco denied a motion to block implementation of the plan.

More than 12 states sought to suspend implementation of the rule. This decision has some expecting that other court challenges of the plan may not be successful.

However, a federal court in Colorado granted the state’s request to freeze implementation of the rule., The court ruled the state was likely to succeed in challenging the administration’s version of the rule. To put the rule into effect in Colorado, only to have it struck down, “would likely create unnecessary confusion among the regulated community about what standard really applies,” the judge wrote.

Washington Insider: Pace of Virus Testing Criticized

While there is modest agreement that more virus testing is essential to control the pandemic, the Washington Post says the administration has yet to “distribute nearly one-third of the funds provided by Congress for testing and contact tracing.” The report cites Senate Democratic leadership as the source of the information.

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 Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told the Post.

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 appropriated, the administration has failed to disburse significant amounts of these funds, 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 last week.

HHS responded that it has distributed $14 billion of the $25 billion authorized, mostly 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 has 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 U.S. has now conducted more than 26 million coronavirus tests, equivalent to about 8% of the nation’s population. The administration has largely met testing goals Azar laid out in May, after an initial slow response that won it heavy criticism.

Still, the ramped-up testing now reveals a troubling reality, the Post says: Coronavirus cases are on the rise in many states, as lockdowns ease and Americans start mingling more.

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 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 U.S. did lag behind other countries in ramping up testing for COVID-19, the Post said. The tests are now more widely available, but are not necessarily being used by everyone who might need them.

In addition, the U.S. was beset by “denial and dysfunction” as the coronavirus raged, the Post said. Of the $25 billion Congress designated for the testing and contact tracing effort, $11 billion was for states and localities to help 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.

However, the Democratic senators said that about one-third of the money provided by Congress has yet to be disbursed 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. They urged that the testing funds “should be disbursed immediately with 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.

So, the basic disagreement over how the nation should respond to the pandemic continues, especially as the virus continues to spread. This is a debate producers should watch closely as it intensifies especially if the disagreement continues to deepen as now appears likely, Washington Insider believes.

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