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County to use state program to continue free testing next year

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — While last week’s discussion among Rowan County Board of Health members ended with question marks about how to continue testing next year once federal funds expire on Dec. 30, Public Health Director Nina Oliver on Wednesday shared promising news that a state-funded organization can provide free testing beginning the first week of January.

Last week, Board of Health members during a called virtual meeting tabled the issue of how to continue testing to wait on what financial relief would be provided by federal lawmakers in the latest stimulus package.

Since receiving nearly $4 million in coronavirus relief funds in the spring, the county has allocated tens of thousands of dollars per month for a COVID-19 testing contract with Mako Medical Laboratories, which allows the Health Department to conduct free testing.

While the current stimulus package awaiting approval or modification on Capitol Hill includes an extension for use of those funds, Oliver told the board on Wednesday that all of those funds have been exhausted. Charles Drake, the local health administrative services manager, said 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 rise in testing amidst the holiday season, those costs have gone up even more.

After talking to some other county health department leaders, Oliver discovered StarMed Healthcare is contracted with the state to conduct free testing in certain counties, primarily counties that struggle with testing. Until this point, Rowan County had no issues with providing free testing, Oliver said.

Oliver said she spoke with state health officials Tuesday and Wednesday. The result: Rowan County was approved to use StarMed Healthcare for more free testing, beginning the first week of January.

“I think that’s probably the best scenario possible,” Oliver said. “So I’m very excited to share that and I’m excited to share that with the board.”

Next week, Mako Medical will conduct a free day of testing on Tuesday. Currently, Monday and Friday of next week are designated holidays for state workers, but Oliver said she could talk with Mako about their availability to test additional days next week.

Additionally, a county partnership with its Federally Qualified Health Center will allow for testing 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.

Earlier this year, the state granted the Rowan County Health Department a $558,000 agreement addendum along with another $53,000 agreement addendum. However, the state only allocated $240,000 for the county to use until June 30. 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.

Last week, Oliver sent a letter to the state requesting that the entire $558,000 be made available to the county. She told board members on Wednesday that the entirety of those funds are expected to be available next week, but the funding has been designated to hire and pay seven temporary staff members until May to help with the vaccine distribution.

Following a request from Rowan County Commissioner Judy Klusman, Drake said staff could specify a certain amount of those funds to use for a few days of testing. But with the rise in testing, Meredith Littell, the county’s nursing director, said one day would be estimated at $36,000. Therefore, Drake said, staff would have to cap how many tests could be provided.

“My concern is that we’ve got people that may be exposing vulnerable people during the holidays,” Klusman said. “And if they can’t have a test, then how will they know to stay home?”

The board ultimately passed a motion to use the $558,000 for the seven temporary staff members along with a couple days of testing where needed.

Additionally, Oliver said she plans to meet with the Health Department’s billing supervisor next week to discuss the possibility of allowing volunteers to help with billing so that the county can collect the $15 per injection revenue from the vaccine. Drake said the county finance department would need to allow that revenue to be spent by the health department since it goes to the county general fund.

Klusman also asked about having some Health Department staff members work over the holidays to assist with making contact with locals who are tested.

But with Hralth Department staff beginning to vaccinate more of those prioritized in phase 1a next week, that causes even more of a burden, Oliver said.

Rowan County received 2,100 doses of the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday. Of those, 1,260 doses were sent to the Novant Health Rowan Medical Center and 840 were left at the Health Department. After vaccinating 22 staff on Wednesday, there are 818 doses left to begin vaccinating first responders, law enforcement, those who come into direct contact with COVID-19 patients and those who are essential in the pandemic response, such as those who will help at the West End Plaza once the next phase of vaccinations begin. All emergency management services staff and sheriff’s office staff will be vaccinated on Monday, which includes 455 people total, Oliver said.

Additionally, Littell said, of the 426 tests conducted on Monday alone, it took a handful of staff close to two days just to make initial contact with all who tested. That doesn’t include the extra time put in when someone requests a copy of their test, she added.

“It’s going to be hard-pressed for my staff to do a vaccine day and then come in and start making phone calls,” Oliver said. “My director of nursing pulls about 70 hours a week. She cannot do any more. I’m just trying to be realistic. We are doing everything we possibly can do.”

Board member Dr. Amy Wilson said she’s heard that some locals are beginning to contact medical clinics requesting to become a new patient so that they can be tested because they can’t be tested anywhere else. Places like CVS, she said, are fully booked.

“I think it’s really rotten that we have a pandemic around the holidays,” Wilson said. “I appreciate how hard it is to get in touch with people and how hard it is to contact them, and it just really sucks that you have maximum numbers at this time of year when we seem to have minimum work hours. I don’t know how to change that, though.”

Klusman also expressed frustration with the determination of who gets vaccinated first, citing concern for the Community Care Clinic in particular. Oliver said while the county expects another shipment of the vaccine next week, the Health Department is having to prioritize those who will be critical in distributing the vaccine once it’s open to the public since there is a limited supply at this time.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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