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Pima County moves to end COVID testing as state won't pay for program

Coronavirus testing projected to cost $40 million in county; Arizona officials say no immediate support coming from federal funding

With its projected cost for COVID-19 testing topping $40 million this year, Pima County will have to cut off the program after state officials said they aren't prepared to cover the expenses out of coronavirus funds appropriated by the federal government.

Halting testing would create a potential "public health threat... (but) we have no options," said Supervisor Sharon Bronson, the chair of the Board of Supervisors.

Update: Arizona changes course, offers short-term lifeline for Pima COVID testing

The county should end its large-scale coronavirus testing effort as of Monday, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry advised the supervisors in a memo Thursday, after state health officials said they could not provide any funding at this point.

"We cannot continue to deficit spend and this less than responsible response from the state requires immediate action," Huckelberry said, asking the supervisors to vote to curtail testing at a joint meeting with the Tucson City Council on coronavirus issues set for Friday morning.

"It appears the funding we believed was set aside in the (federal) 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act for COVID-19 testing of $416 million is being used by the state for other purposes," Huckelberry wrote.

"We're going to have to suspend testing unless the monies come to Pima County," Bronson told TucsonSentinel.com on Thursday. "We're out of money."

"If we can't test, we don't know what's going to happen next," she said.

The head of the Arizona state health department told reporters Thursday afternoon that "we know how important testing is," but did not explain why officials had told the county that there wouldn't be any funding for it even as new, more virulent and potentially more deadly variants of the disease are spreading across the country. "We're looking into it," she said, describing the county's effort as "phenomenal."

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The county has already spent nearly $11 million in the first six weeks of the year on testing, and has forecast a total of more than $40 million in testing costs through August.

The county has fronted many of the costs thus far, with Pima financially responsible for 65 percent of the "large scale testing in the region," according to a county document sent to state officials.

The county has paid more than $47 million for RT-PCR testing for coronavirus, bearing more than $10.6 million out of its funds to date.

"If the county doesn't receive its fair share of the federal testing dollars being withheld by the state in the coming days, we will have to suspend our current viral surveillance program as early as February 22, putting the entire community at risk," said Supervisor Matt Heinz, a medical doctor who works at a local hospital treating COVID patients.

In a memo sent Thursday morning to county health officials, the chief of the state's Bureau of Epidemiology and Disease Control, Dr. Eugene Livar, said that the state would not be providing funding to the county at this point, but would "reassess the funding available to support Pima County's testing needs" after mid-March.

"It may be likely that we can not support the entirety of the $40,274,448 need but will likely be able to provide some level of support" then, Livar wrote to Dr. Theresa Cullen, head of the Pima County Health Department.

He said that the state would be providing $1 million to Paradigm Labs "for immediate needs... at this time."

Huckelberry wrote to the supervisors that "Paradigm Labs is also our contractor. It appears the uses for which the state will be using these funds is everything but COVID-19 testing."

State officials did not have an immediate response to questions about funding for coronavirus testing in Pima County on Thursday morning. Dr. Cara Christ, the head of the state Department of Health Services, held an afternoon press conference about the state takeover of the University of Arizona vaccination site.

"So, we're working very closely with our county partners to get funding for additional testing, and so hopefully, they got some updated messaging tonight," Christ told reporters. "We do have federal funding that's has come to the state, and we're looking into it. We know how important testing is."

Christ didn't explain why the county had been told that there would be no funding for COVID testing in the near future.

"They should have notice, because we are just being able to amend contracts, so it depends on what their plan is, and what they want to submit as their testing plan," Christ said. "Pima County has a phenomenal testing strategy, so we know we want to know that we want to keep that going. So hopefully, we'll be able to get those contracts amended pretty quickly."

County officials said Thursday night that there have been a few unofficial discussions about more federal funding being released by the state, but there have been no hard numbers provided — just possibilities.

"The discussed possibilities are still well short of what the county has spent on testing to date," county spokesman Mark Evans said.

Although the number of people seeking testing has declined in recent weeks, public health experts have pointed to ongoing testing efforts as necessary to understand the continued progression of the virus.

"If we don't test, we can't in any way, shape or form respond to the newest strains," Bronson said, calling the situation "a public health threat."

"If we continue (to fund testing without state and federal support), we won't have any balance in our general fund," she told the Sentinel. "I don't know how you do early childhood education, I don't know how you do roads, or economic recovery" if the county spends millions on testing without reimbursement.

Bronson said that the county has had "no conversations with the governor" about the pandemic recently. Gov. Doug Ducey has reportedly not spoken to Tucson Mayor Regina Romero since the outbreak began a year ago.

"We need help now; we need it immediately," Bronson said. "Hopefully the federal government and the state will rethink their position. Monies need to flow directly to the local jurisdictions, not through the state. We need transparency and accountability, and I'm not sure we have that now."

The county administrator told the supervisors that "there is no mention of an reimbursement of our costs incurred since January 1" in the state's letter to Cullen and Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's medical director.

Suspending the testing effort is "unfortunate as it was abundantly clear to Pima County that the state allocation was for COVID-19 testing. At least that was the impression we were left with in reviewing (the federal budget act)," Huckelberry said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

University Medical Center South began operating a COVID-19 screening area outside of the emergency department in March.

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