Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Pima County’s COVID-19 testing program will continue for at least another week.
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry asked the Pima County Board of Supervisors to consider suspending the county’s free COVID-19 testing program due to a lack of funds from the state, but the county is maintaining the program until at least March 2 following an announcement from the state health department that they’ll provide Pima County around $14.4 million to support testing efforts.
Huckelberry first suggested halting the testing program in a memo released Feb. 18 after state officials told the county they would only reimburse $1 million in testing costs out of the $47,750,000 in COVID-19 testing the county incurred since April 2020.
While initially running the county’s testing operations under the assumption Pima County would be covered by the $416 million provided to Arizona for testing through the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Huckelberry wrote in the memo that the federal funds are “being used by the State for other purposes,” adding, “It appears the uses for which the State will be using these funds is for everything but COVID-19 testing.”
With no state reimbursement, any further county testing operations would incur deficit costs.
On Feb. 19, the Arizona Department of Health Services sent out a press release announcing it will release $100 million in federal funding to support testing across the state.
ADHS is disbursing the funds to counties using a formula of a $100,000 base amount with additional funding based on the county’s percentage of the state’s population. Pima County should receive $14.36 million.
After receiving the notification before a joint special meeting between the Pima County Board of Supervisors and Tucson City Council on Friday, Feb. 19, the Board of Supervisors decided to postpone the vote to halt testing until the next board meeting on March 2.
Huckelberry said the state funding will allow testing to resume until the next board meeting to see if the state will follow through on providing counties testing funds. However, Huckelberry said the funds still might not be enough to continue the county’s testing program.
“Our expenses, if we continue on through August, are going to run into the $41 million range. So you can see that $14.3 million doesn't go very far when your continuing expenses are running into the $41 million range,” Huckelberry said at the joint meeting. “We would hope that the state would actually get some on-the-ground experience as to what's occurring, because if they did, they’d know that we were doing most of the testing in Arizona as a county. So we're hopeful that they can figure that out.”
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said the city provided $9 million for testing throughout Tucson and Pima County, but the CARES Act funds they come through expire at the end of February. If the state’s efforts don’t provide adequate funds to continue the county’s testing program, the mayor said a second option should be ready, including having the state take over the county’s testing contracts.
“We on the mayor and council side want to support your efforts in Pima County. Understand that you have the public health experts to be able to guide us and give mayor and council and the community input as to what's the plan B for testing if there's no support by the state of Arizona,” Romero said. “Maybe what we have to do is find a less expensive way and then leave it up to the state to pick up the testing sites that we currently have. Then maybe the state could find a less expensive way to do the necessary testing.”
If county testing does cease, however, it could result in dire impacts in tracking the true spread of coronavirus throughout Pima County. The data testing provides is key to assessing epidemical factors that influence mitigation policies and the reopening of schools and businesses.
According to Pima County Public Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen, up to 55% of the county’s testing is provided through the county’s free program. The rest is run by private vendors such as hospitals, pharmacies and doctors’ offices.
“We use our positivity rate to give us a sense of what is happening in the community with COVID...If all of a sudden we quit testing, let's say the whole county quit testing, it would look like COVID went away because there wouldn't be any way to recognize that people have COVID,” Cullen said. “If we test you, and you are positive, we work with you to isolate, we identify your contacts to quarantine, and we decrease the transmission of the disease that way.”
In addition to the contract tracing services the county provides, the financial benefits the free testing program offers could mean a greater impact on Pima County’s most vulnerable residents.
“If you've gone to one of the county sites, we don't ask you for insurance, you actually don't need insurance, there's not a bill that comes with it. We have a great portal system where you're able to get your results. So that availability to walk-in testing, whether you're symptomatic or asymptomatic, would go away,” Cullen said. “For for the typical resident, what it'll mean is if you wake up one morning, and you have a headache, and you've lost your sense of smell, and you think you need to get tested, you won't have a county test place to go. There will be other test places to go, but you'll either have to have your insurance or you'll have to be able to pay for it.”