Houston to spend $200 million on new COVID-19 testing sites, contact tracing

Houston will spend an estimated $200 million to expand testing and contact tracing across Houston — roughly half of the money received from the federal government as part of the CARES Act.

Access and equity are the focus of the Houston Health Department’s COVID-19 testing strategy moving forward, Mayor Sylvester Turner and COVID-19 Recovery Czar Marvin Odum announced Thursday. The health department will also significantly increase its contact tracing workforce to monitor and contain disease.

“COVID-19 is a real and present danger in all our lives and will be so for the foreseeable future,” Odum said. “As we continue navigating this new reality together, it’s important we become even more strategic in our efforts to lessen the spread through ubiquitous testing and robust contact tracing.”

Using test saturation information from CDC and vulnerability data from UTHealth, the health department identified 20 priority Houston communities to address our most vulnerable and at-risk neighborhoods. These areas have limited access to testing and higher rates of underlying health conditions, making them more vulnerable to severe health outcomes from COVID-19.

“We are still facing a public health crisis. The virus is still in our City and we are working strategically to manage its spread,” Mayor Turner said. “The newly announced plans for more testing and contact tracing will allow us to move forward in a way that will save lives and prevent a resurgence.”

The health department is working with partners on a testing strategy that includes fixed sites, mobile sites and strategic outreach teams.

  • Fixed sites include Houston’s two large-scale testing sites at Butler and Delmar Stadiums, in addition to expanding testing capacity at Federally Qualified Health Centers.
  • Mobile sites include the Houston Health Department mobile unit and sites established through partnerships with the Texas Division of Emergency Management United Memorial Medical Center.
  • Strategic outreach teams are deployed within 48 hours to address immediate needs in congregant settings like nursing homes, long-term care facilities and detention centers. The teams will also respond to people who are homebound or experiencing homelessness.

The testing strategy currently includes up to 24 sites that will be announced as they are established throughout May.

The health department will also hire an additional 300 contact tracers to meet the growing demand to monitor and contain COVID-19 cases. Currently, the health department has about 125 people in this role, most of whom are temporarily deployed from other areas of the department.

“We are tapping into the talent of our local educational institutions and will conduct hiring fairs to meet this staffing need,” said Stephen L. Williams, director of the Houston Health Department. “Not only will this allow us to meet the current need of COVID-19, it allows us to train our future public health workforce.”

Testing and contact tracing accounts for approximately $56 million of the Houston Health Department’s $125 million COVID-19 response plan. The funding will be made available through $404 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act received by the City of Houston.

Houstonians should visit HoustonEmergency.org/covid19 to find out how to get tested.