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County board of health unsure about testing next year with relief funds set to expire this month

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Though still awaiting a deal among federal lawmakers, the Rowan County Board of Health met virtually Wednesday evening to discuss the feasibility of moving forward with COVID-19 testing with coronavirus relief funds set to expire Dec. 30.

Wednesday’s special called meeting resulted in a tabling of the matter until the board meets again on Dec. 23 at 6 p.m., with the hopes that Congress will reach an agreement and pass another stimulus relief package.

Since June, the county has allocated tens of thousands of dollars per month from the nearly $4 million available in federal funds for a COVID-19 testing contract with Mako Medical Laboratories, which allows the county health department to conduct free testing. But one of the requirements with those funds is that they must be exhausted by Dec. 30, leaving the feasibility of testing next year unclear.

Charles Drake, the local health administrative services manager, told board members Wednesday that testing has amounted to an average of $110,000 per month, or about $15,000 per day to conduct about 176 tests. And with the escalated demand for testing during the holiday season, it could be even more costly, he told the Post on Thursday.

Earlier this year, the state health department granted the Rowan County Health Department a $558,000 agreement addendum, along with another $53,000 agreement addendum. Those  can be thought of as contracts with limits on how the funds can be spent.

However, the state only allocated $240,000 for the county to use until June 30, and on July 1, or the start of the next fiscal year, the county will receive the remaining $318,000. The $53,000 agreement has been used for laptops, printers, office supplies, equipment and medical supplies.

Rowan County Public Health Director Nina Oliver told board members she continues to stay in touch with Novant Health Rowan Medical Center President and CEO Gary Blabon to see if and how Novant could financially support more countywide free testing.

Additionally, Oliver said the county’s partnership with its Federally Qualified Health Center has allowed for additional free testing since May, with plans to provide it once a week beginning in January. The FQHC program is a reimbursement designation from the Bureau of Primary Health Care and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services of the U.S. health department.

CVS and Fastmed Clinic both provide COVID-19 testing, but additional criteria may apply and insurance is billed.

Board member Dr. Amy Wilson suggested cutting testing hours and moving around funds if possible as January and February will be critical times to test.

“I know it’s a lot of money but it seems like money we need to use,” Wilson said, referring to the $240,000 available money. “I just feel very strongly that we need to continue doing some kind of testing.”

Oliver said Rowan County has been recognized by the state health department for going “above and beyond” with testing, but that the need now is to dedicate resources to vaccine distribution. The $240,000 pot of money from the state was planned to be used for seven temporary employees who would assist with COVID-19 investigations and vaccine distribution. Oliver said that money could be used for testing, but it wouldn’t go far with how expensive it is to test the community. Additionally, it would only allow the county to hire two or three staff members.

Oliver said those would be vital as current public health staff are “past the point of burnout” and exhaustion.

“I don’t disagree with you. I agree we need testing,” Oliver said. “It’s a very difficult struggle. There’s so much coming at public health staff right now.”

But board member and engineer Linus Giles Goodman III said, “If you can’t afford to test, then you shouldn’t test.”

Board member and optometrist Dr. Carla Rose asked for a more specific dollar amount to bring to Rowan County commissioners, but Oliver said the county would need several hundreds of thousands more dollars.

Rowan County Commissioner Judy Klusman, who is also a member of the board, asked why the county is unable to charge those who can afford a test and provide free testing for those who can’t. Oliver said that would be “a logistical nightmare” for county health department staff and she hasn’t heard of any health department doing that.

Klusman also asked about the county’s Medicaid cost settlement fund, which Drake explained to the Post is a rebate program from the state that reimburses counties for providing services in which they’re not compensated. Rowan County typically receives between $300,000 to $600,000, he said, but rebates are determined by the state with an algorithm. Additionally, it’s expected for those funds to be funneled back into the various programs in which the money was spent.

Drake told the Post on Thursday that some of that rebate has been spent to improve the environmental health program, which includes food and lodging sanitation, lead investigations and water and well programs, as well as the county’s Post-Overdose Response Team, which works to mitigate the county’s opioid crisis. The rebate funds have allowed PORT to continue its work for another year as the county continues to seek more grants.

The board ultimately decided to table the discussion for next week. Klusman said she’s hopeful the federal government will have agreed to send more money for COVID-19 testing by then. But in the meantime, she asked Oliver to draft and send a letter on behalf of the board to the state requesting the county receive the $318,000 allocation scheduled for July.

“It does no good sitting there when the need for testing is right now,” Klusman said.

Oliver told the Post on Thursday she intends to send a letter on behalf of the board, but she is unsure if the letter should be addressed to the state health department or the General Assembly.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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