Without coronavirus relief funds, COVID-19 testing, paramedic programs in jeopardy

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 10, 2020

SALISBURY —  The COVID-19 economic relief package currently being hashed out by Congress will have major implications for the country as a whole, but it will also impact several Rowan County programs.

Over the previous several months, Rowan County has worked to distribute the $5.32 million it received in CARES Act funding in the spring. Those funds, the majority of which have already been spent or allocated, are set to expire at the end of the month. When those funds expire, several programs that have been supported by the money will be impacted, County Manager Aaron Church said. Two programs include the COVID-19 testing administered by the Health Department and the COVID-19 community paramedics program.

Since June, the county has allocated tens of thousands of dollars per month from its coronavirus relief fund for a COVID-19 testing contract with Mako Medical Laboratories. After spending $46,835 on tests in September, the county spent $173,400 in October as case counts continued to rise. In total, the county is projected to spend over $600,000 on testing since March.

Spending that much on tests, Church said, isn’t sustainable without a new funding source. If no federal action is taken, the county’s free testing program will come to an end.

“We’re still in limbo right now,” said Amy Smith, Rowan County public health education specialist. “We’re waiting to see if the federal government will release any future funds and we do still have planning scheduled out until the end of the year with some exceptions for holidays.”

If no funds are released, Smith said, the Health Department will refer those seeking tests to other agencies.

“What we would have to do is make referrals out to other facilities and agencies that we know that are offering the tests,” Smith said. “A lot of it is still up in the air.”

Smith mentioned Novant Health, CVS and FastMed Urgent Care as local COVID-19 testing providers. However, Smith said that she is “not sure” if they will be able to accommodate the number of people needing tests and said that not all of them offer free testing.

The steady rise in COVID-19 case numbers and the long rollout process for the vaccine will make testing critical well into the new year, Smith said.

If the county doesn’t receive any more funding that it can allocate to COVID-19 testing, Smith said that the Health Department will turn its attention to distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. The department may begin distributing the vaccine to specific individuals, Smith said, by mid-January. 

“It does worry us but we have to be flexible,” Smith said. “If we don’t have money to do the tests, the next phase is making sure we try to get the vaccines to everyone who wants one and go from there.”

More information about the COVID-19 vaccine and testing can be found at rowancountync.gov/256/Health-Department.

In August, the county launched the COVID-19 community paramedic program to provide in-home assistance to those recovering from the virus. The program transitioned four existing paramedics to new roles in which they conducted coronavirus assessments and provided care to patients.

Through December, the county will have spent close to $130,000 to pay paramedic salaries and to provide equipment and supplies for the program. But without more federal money, Church said that the program will come to an end, too.

“If it’s not budgeted, you can’t do it,” Church said. “A lot of programs were based on the CRF funding being available.”

Allen Cress, Rowan County’s chief of emergency services, said paramedics have talked to or visited an average of 11 patients per day since the program started.

“The COVID paramedic program has been great for us,” Cress said. “We’ve received numerous emails, phone calls from citizens in the county thanking us for what we do for them. They’ve been great in what they’ve done and they’ve really put themselves on the line for us.”

Cress said that the program is a testament that mask wearing does reduce the spread of COVID-19, since the four paramedics have been entering the homes of COVID-positive patients but have not contracted the virus during their time working for the program.

Cress said that the program will end at the end of December, which is both a positive and negative. The program is still needed, Cress said, but he hopes that eventually with a vaccine it won’t be necessary. When the program ceases, the four paramedics will return to their regular duties.

The expiration of coronavirus relief funds could also result in the county reducing its number of temporary staffers, particularly in the Health Department, Church said.

Rowan County Finance Director Jim Howden informed commissioners at a meeting Monday that the county is projected to exhaust all $5.32 million it received in CARES Act funding. Church said that he is pleased with the way the county has dispersed those funds this year.

Along with allocating funds directly to municipalities, Rowan County has utilized money to incentivize the expansion of rural broadband, installed equipment in county facilities to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and provide relief to small businesses.

“Commissioners have had lots of special meetings, lots of discussions, lots of thought and dedication in determining how to best appropriate and spend the money,” Church said. “A lot of the money has been utilized responsibly and in a way that we hope has responded to COVID-19.”

Another special meeting could be called this month. Church said that he is constantly monitoring activity at the federal level and that commissioners will be poised to react to any movement on a COVID-19 relief package that may be passed.

However, it is not even certain whether a COVID-19 relief package would include funds for local governments. On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that a COVID-19 relief package could leave out providing funding for state and local governments entirely in order to pass the bill. More details about the $908 billion coronavirus relief bill emerged Wednesday, but no clarity was given on funding for state and local governments.

Until the COVID-19 relief package is passed and it is revealed what it entails, the future remains clouded.

“The programs have served their purpose and have been very productive, but we just have to wait and see what happens with the stimulus plan,” Church said. “The uncertainty of not knowing when and how is what makes it difficult to manage, not knowing what the rules will be.”

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About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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