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'Out of funding': COVID-19 strains Pima County finances, Huckelberry seeks more federal aid

$15M shortfall with CARES Act funding spent — $55M more needed

Pima County faces a $15 million shortfall with federal COVID-19 response funds nearly all spent, and some $55 million in additional aid will be needed to continue fighting the outbreak in Southern Arizona, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said.

"We are simply out of funding to respond to the pandemic," he said, at a time when costs are increasing faster than any other time during the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.

In a memo sent to members of the Board of Supervisors on Thursday, Huckleberry said the county received about $87 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, passed by Congress in March. The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill included $339.8 billion for state and local governments. 

The county spent $38 million on testing and contact tracing, about $8 million on medical and public health equipment, and another $1.5 million on a public health campaign, Huckelberry told county officials. Around another $7.8 million was spent on eviction prevention and utility assistance, and $2 million on a "food security" initiative that works with local food pantries.

Huckelberry's memo was sent to Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Steve Christy, the only incumbents remaining on the board, and incoming Sups. Rex Scott, Matt Heinz and Adelita Grijalva, who are set to take office with the new year.

The county also spent around $4.2 million on small business support, including rent assistance and help to upgrade infrastructure for outdoor dining and "touch-less" interactions, Huckelberry said.

The largest expense was $33.8 million for county personnel, which included effort on the coronavirus response, pandemic and sick leave, and leave for parents to take care of children because schools were closed. Some of this also included unemployment benefits. 

Huckelberry noted in his memo that a stay-at-home plan went into effect on Dec. 21 and will expire on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. The plan allows some county employees to telecommute. Before the plan went into effect, about 700 employees were telecommuting, he said. Afterwards, another 124 began to work from home, he said. 

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The county also gave fire district and law enforcement about $642,000, and spent another $1.6 million to help courts. 

All told, the county spent nearly $99.3 million, or $15 million above the funds given to the county under the CARES Act, Huckleberry said. 

To continue contact tracking and vaccinations, the county would need another $55 million in aid, Huckleberry said. 

"The county will have to carry this additional financial burden through the General Fund, which simply means less funding available for any other purpose and that existing programs and department for those General Fund agencies will continue to be reduced in the latter half of this fiscal year and perhaps into next fiscal year," he said. 

"Clearly, the service and financial burden for public health falls squarely on the shoulders of counties from a national perspective. In the case of Pima County, we provide those services throughout the county in every city and town and for the unincorporated population," he said. 

In a letter to U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Huckleberry emphasized the financial hole the county was facing.  

"The fact that Pima County spent its CRF allocation of $87,107,597 in just ten months illustrates the enormity and speed of incurred costs to address critical public health and community needs during this crisis," Huckleberry wrote. "These costs continue to incur." 

He added that by December 31, the county had incurred another $15 million in medical and public health costs that will have to be covered by the general fund if "no other grant funding" can be found by June 30, 2021. 

And, the county Health Department said it will need another $45 million for testing, contact tracing, and vaccinations operations from January to June 2021. 

"We are simply out of funding to respond to the pandemic," he said. "This comes at a time when our costs and public health obligations are increasing faster than at any time during the pandemic." 

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Huckleberry said that the health department was continuing to deploy the COVID-19 vaccine, and that it expected to get through the first phase of the vaccine—covering about 68,000 people—by January. This would include critical health care workforces, as well as residents of long-term care and assisted living facilities, he said. 

Huckelberry noted that there are now two vaccines available in Pima County, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Both require two doses, doubling the number of vaccine dose, Huckleberry said. The first vaccine arrived on Dec. 14 and on Dec. 17, doctors and nurses at TMC and Banner University Medical Center's North Campus began giving out vaccines. Officials began vaccinated patients with the new Moderna vaccine during the week of December 21, he said. 

Huckleberry said that 12,283 people have received the vaccine from a lot of 29,000 doses, and along with TMC and Banner, Pima County officials are giving out vaccines at four community health centers—United Community Health Center, Marana Health Center, El Rio and Desert Senita—and four additional hospitals—St. Mary’s, St Joseph’s, Northwest Medical Center and Oro Valley—and one large group practice, Arizona Community Physicians. 

Additionally, the Tohono O’Odham Nation and the Southern Arizona Veterans Administration Hospital are receiving additional Moderna vaccine allotments directly from the federal government, he said. Additionally, beginning December 20, 2020, Walgreens and CVS started the vaccination process for vaccinating resides and staff of long term care facilities. 

Officials expect the second phase of the vaccine to begin in mid-January, but they don't have an exact date, owing to the "uncertainty of the amount and timing of the vaccine process." Nationally, about 3 million vaccine doses have been given out, far below a Trump administration estimate of 20 million doses by the end of the year. 

Additionally, on Wednesday, Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order telling the Department of Health Services on Wednesday to create a "state-directed" model for delivery of vaccines, overriding the plans of the counties throughout the state.

The executive order will shift vaccinations from county-set implementation plans, to a single "state-directed allocation model" run by ADHS to "ensure a uniform approach to the vaccination of high-risk and high-priority Arizonans."

"This is a health emergency, and we need all levels of government and our health system operating as such," Ducey complained. "Vaccines don’t do any good sitting in a freezer." 

Huckleberry said that Phase 1B will "initially prioritize education and childcare providers, covering about 29,000 K-12 public educators and staff, as well as adults 75 and older or about 92,000 people. This phase will also cover, "protective service occupations" including police and fire, he said. Phase 1B will also later include "essential services/critical industry workers" and adults with "high risk conditions in congregate settings." 

"There are currently no reliable estimates of the size of these populations, The sheer size and complexity of the 1B population will mean this effort will be ongoing into April," he said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry during a meeting on Dec. 4, 2020.

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