Pinal County will accept $3,387,435 from the federal government to hire a vaccine equity employee and distribute COVID-19 vaccines to underserved communities, the public health services board of directors decided recently.
The move reverses its September decision to not take the funds.
The board voted 3-2 on Nov. 3 to receive the funds with an amendment offered by Kevin Cavanaugh, District 1, that the public health department or designees shall not assist the U.S. government in the implementation or enforcement of federal orders related to quarantine and isolation. Also, if Pinal County learns of any such mandate, the health department will immediately notify the clerk of the board who will schedule a special session to discuss action.
Dissenting were Cavanaugh and Jeff Serdy, District 5.
“(T)he grant, in my estimation, would require us to hire somebody — an equity coordinator,” Cavanaugh said during a discussion prior to the vote. “I believe this is unaccountable spending — we’re going to send it to a contractor. We have paid contractors in the past $15,000 to $20,000 per day to give vaccines, and my thought is we could probably do this more efficiently locally.... Another issue is we didn’t know we needed a public health equity coordinator until the federal government had a grant attached to it,” he said.
The funds will be used for mobile units to offer COVID-19 vaccines, said Tascha Spears, Pinal County’s public health director, during the Nov. 3 meeting.
“At this current time we are being requested to provide resources that we currently do not have, so we are requesting through this particular item that we obtain the funds to be able to offer mobile units to areas of need or to vaccinate in-home or, for example, in assisted-living circumstances, long-term care facilities and so forth,” she said.
“This grant does not mandate anyone get a vaccine. This grant is merely money that the public health department can use to help administer the vaccine,” Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer told the board. “It does not force anybody to meet with public health. It does not give public health the authority to go into anybody’s room or to forcibly jab a needle in anybody’s arm. That is not what this grant is about.”
Volkmer said the board, by approving the amendment, is practically providing conditional acceptance.
“I know the explicit concern is that the federal government is going to come in and say ‘Aha. We’ve got you now because, you know, we have all of this money and we’re going to start isolating or quarantining people through edicts or presidential order.’ What this does is it gives, again, very explicit direction — and I’d almost call this conditional acceptance — where the board is telling public health ‘OK, we’ll accept this. We’ll allow you to use this money, but in the event this happens, get back before us so we can cancel it.’ That is really the effect of that friendly amendment,” he said prior to the vote.
The board voted 3-2 on Sept. 1 to not accept the funding, with Chairman Stephen Miller, District 3; and Vice Chairman Mike Goodman, District 2, dissenting.
“This position would fund a nurse presumably at about $65,000 and the other several million (dollars) would go to an as yet unnamed contractor, and so we don’t know anything yet about the contractors, what the goals and purposes are except for the vaccine equity so I will make a motion if we’re ready for that, that we not approve item B on the public health agenda,” Cavanaugh said during the public health services board’s Sept. 1 meeting.
The decision to revisit accepting the funds was made at the public health services board’s Oct. 27 meeting. The board voted that the grant award between Arizona Department of Health Services and the Pinal County Public Health Services District be placed on the Nov. 3 agenda for discussion and another vote.
The funds are for a specific use, according to an intergovernmental agreement document: “To improve vaccine equity within local jurisdictions, local health departments serving racial and ethnic communities at increased risk of COVID-19 will implement their plans ... to collaborate with other non-immunization focused programs within the local health departments or local government that have established community engagement programs, initiatives or reach into those communities. Additionally, local health departments will hire a vaccine equity coordinator who will coordinate efforts within the county. The COVID-19 vaccination equity funding can also be utilized for but not limited to staffing, materials/supplies, travel and general operating costs.”
The change is an amendment to a grant the county previously received, Volkmer told supervisors Oct. 27.
“We’re calling this a grant but it’s not a grant in a typical sense, and I think we need to make that clear. Normally a grant is competitive and you have to make a pitch and you have to convince them that you are the best ... to get this money,” he said. “This is actually an amendment to a grant we got a long time ago where they said, ‘Hey, this is the money we’re setting aside for you. If you can develop a program that appropriately uses these funds you get this money.’ So we’re not competing with Pima County, we’re not competing with anybody else. It’s money that’s already been allocated and earmarked specifically for Pinal County.”
The grant is the sixth amendment for the funds, Volkmer said.
“So what we’re here for today is really just this last chunk of money. To date there has been about $147 million administered to the entirety of the state of Arizona; to Pinal County ... a total of about ... $14.5 million,” he said. “Essentially about $350,000 will be used on the equity coordinator; the remaining money will be used for pop-up clinics and to outsource a third party to provide services that we internally cannot provide.”
Pinal County receives several hundred grants a year that are discussed during its annual budget process, Supervisors Chairman Miller said later in the Oct. 27 meeting.
“(M)aybe for the reason that we had little information — or what seemed to be a summary type of information when we first approached this — is because we talk about this during the budget process... We project what we’re going to get in the way of grants ... so we don’t have to raise taxes so we can still provide the services that we’re looking for. And particularly in our county where we ... are challenged for transportation and areas that are underserved with a lot of county services so rather than try to use our general fund money we apply for these grants to be able to do that type of work,” he said. “(T)he policy of this board should be that we want you to provide the services to as many people as we can.”