TACOMA, Wash. — The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is making plans to drastically cut back its COVID-19 response after Pierce County and the City of Tacoma declined to provide $15 million to cover costs associated with the Omicron surge.
That wave of cases increased anticipated pandemic-response costs for 2022, and department staff told the Board of Health in February some COVID-19 expenses like testing and case investigations could be reduced as soon as April.
There are no bills currently scheduled in Pierce County or Tacoma councils to allocate more money. Pierce County council member Hans Zeiger (R-Puyallup) said in Tuesday’s County Council meeting that he isn’t confident the county will cover the requested costs.
“I’m not sure we have the ability to allocate funds to that gap,” Zeiger told Director of Health Dr. Anthony Chen.
Zeiger then asked the health department how it would manage without the additional $15 million. Chen responded, “We will continue to monitor the situation and see what the future brings in terms of COVID response.”
On Tuesday, Pierce County Council released a $10.8 million appropriation made to the health department in the county’s budget last November. The two-year budget required an itemized list of intended spending from the health department before the funds were granted.
The health department told the council the money would fund COVID-19 response:
- $3.7 million on testing.
- $3.2 million on outbreak investigations.
- $1.5 million on response management and operations.
- $1 million on epidemiology.
- $700,000 on communications.
- $490,000 on community engagement.
Those funds already have been allotted in the health department’s $88.6 million budget for 2022 and 2023, $7.2 million of which came from county revenues. Before the pandemic, the county allocated less to the department: $2.2 million in 2019.
Health department staff told the Board of Health in February more is needed to adequately address the pandemic.
As of Feb. 28, Chen reported Pierce County had seen 71,234 cases of COVID-19 in 2022. Providing case investigations, testing materials and sites, and collecting data has cost the health department.
“That’s more than all the cases in 2020 and more than two-thirds of all the cases in 2021 that included Delta (variant). That tells you the amount of burden we are dealing with here,” Chen told the council in a Feb. 28 subcommittee.
The health department has no authority to tax and relies on various funding streams, including money from local governments, state dollars and grants. The state Department of Health, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Pierce County also feed money into the health department to set up testing sites, contact tracing and operations to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
In February, the department’s presentation to the Board of Health said there was a $18 million shortfall to continue to offer higher than expected levels of contact and case tracing, data and operations staffing and community engagement.
The health department lowered its initial $18 million projected shortfall by $3 million because of less demand for testing sites after at-home test kits became widely available. Staffing needs were also scaled back.
“The number we presented to the (Pierce County) Council was $15,048,000. That should still be the most current,” TPCHD spokesperson Kenny Via told The News Tribune.
Chen is hopeful the emergency response to the coronavirus is ending, and the health department is therefore slowly changing its COVID-19 efforts. Pierce County’s reported COVID-19 cases have plummeted in recent weeks to a 14-day case rate of 223. 6 cases per 100,000, compared to the Dec. 12-25 rate of 841.6.
The health department is planning to forgo more expensive mass vaccination and testing sites and to increase immunization efforts at pharmacies and doctors’ offices.
Chen told the council on Tuesday that additional dollars are still needed.
“The biggest lesson is from June 30 when the governor lifted all restrictions and we saw a rapid return in cases. So obviously in emergency preparedness, we plan for the worse and hope for the best,” Chen said. “This is what we are projecting we need, and it already includes ramping back.”
Derek Young leads both the County Council and the Board of Health as chair. He had hoped for more financial participation from the county’s cities to help TPCHD respond to the public health emergency. Congress’ American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) split recovery dollars between counties and cities across the country, and Young hoped cities would include the health department in their budgeting.
Pierce County was granted $175.7 million over two years in ARPA dollars to respond and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Tacoma was granted $61 million from the federal government.
“I’m not thrilled with the position we are in,” Young told The News Tribune. “I had hoped our city partners would have at least some contributions from the city in ARPA dollars, but it’s pretty clear that is unlikely.”
Tacoma told The News Tribune $200,000 of its ARPA funds have been given to the health department for the Black Infant Health program and the BRAVO program, which incentivizes businesses to require proof of vaccination.
“We will continue to work with county and state leaders on funding solutions for our COVID-19 response and recovery,” Via said.
While there are no current additional allocations to the health department, Young said he would push the County Council to re-appropriate funds as necessary later in the year.
“It is my commitment that we will have enough dollars to meet the public health emergency,” he said. “If we get to a point where this becomes a problem, I would start looking for funding through general revenue streams or re-appropriate ARPA dollars.”
The City Council will work with TPCHD to discuss long-term needs while planning its budget for the next two years and how to spend remaining ARPA dollars, city spokesperson Maria Lee said. Tacoma has yet to appropriate $30.5 million in federal funds, but the city has other plans for it.
“We anticipate that the total level of need that exists out in our community — for issues like homelessness, housing affordability, public safety, COVID recovery and other City services — will far exceed available resources,” Lee said.
This story was originally published by The News Tribune.
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