PHOENIX — Arizona health officials doled out $100 million in federal funds Friday to the state’s counties to boost local testing for COVID-19.
The announcement came a day after Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he would ask supervisors to stop the testing, saying the state failed to live up to its promise to reimburse the county.
But state health director Dr. Cara Christ said Friday’s move had nothing to do with that and the plan already was in the works.
In fact, Christ said Pima County officials are mistaken if they think they’re going to get repaid for all of the $10.7 million the county already spent out of its own coffers for testing.
She denied that was ever promised.
“I think that the county’s a little confused on a couple of points,” Christ said. “The funding that is coming cannot be used for reimbursement.”
As for all the tests done, “that was a strategy that Pima County wanted to provide free testing to all of the providers,” rather than setting up a system to bill the insurance companies of individuals who have coverage, Christ said. “That’s a little bit different than what we normally do with health-care testing.”
So the $14.36 million for Pima County in Friday’s announcement can be used only for expenses from Jan. 15 forward, under the federal rules governing the grant, she said.
Huckelberry said that’s not acceptable. He vowed to seek review and, if necessary, appeal to the appropriate federal agencies.
“We have a (state) public health agency not recognizing that January was the worst so far” for COVID-19, which is why the county stepped up to provide testing, he said.
Huckelberry figures Pima County has been conducting about 3,000 tests a day. Take the first 14 days of January — the time Christ said the state won’t pay for — and multiply that by the $191 cost of per test, and that’s more than $8 million. And that doesn’t cover anything done last year.
Huckelberry is no more happy with how the state is dividing up the $100 million.
Christ said a decision was made to provide a base of $100,000 to each of the state’s 15 counties. Then the balance was allocated based on population.
Huckelberry said that fails to acknowledge that many counties have no testing program of their own. Meanwhile, he said, 65% of the tests done in Pima County were done by county government.
Christ, however, figures part of that is the county’s own fault for picking up the tab. She said its officials could have arranged, as occurs in some other places, to see if people have health insurance and bill those firms accordingly instead of taking it out of taxpayer dollars.
Anyway, she said her team did manage to find $1 million in other dollars that the county could use to pay for services at Paradigm Labs “to keep them going until they get this funding.” But even that money, Christ said, is not a reimbursement.
“It was to continue testing activities,” she said, saying any new dollars will be “a moving forward opportunity.”
The state has been helping, Christ added.
“We’ve been paying for airport testing since Jan. 1 and those types of activities,” she said, referring to in-terminal testing for travelers and a site outside the terminal for nontravelers.
“But this federal money, it’s for activities from Jan. 15 on,” Christ said.
Asked about Pima County officials’ belief they were promised reimbursement, Christ said: “I don’t remember us agreeing to that.”
While the state is funneling more federal dollars into local testing, Christ acknowledged that the overall level of testing is down. But she said that’s not a surprise.
More cases being reported tends to lead to more people hoping to find out if they’ve contracted the virus, she said.
“And as we tend to go down in cases, people tend to drop off for testing,” Christ said.
That’s not necessarily a good idea, however.
“We would recommend that anybody that thinks they’ve been infected with or exposed to COVID-19 still get tested,” she said. “We know that asymptomatic spread can happen.”
And even people who have been inoculated may need to get tested, too. “We know that no vaccine is 100% effective,” Christ explained.
“The less people that can be impacted by the disease, the better it is for those people that can’t get vaccinated or who the vaccine didn’t work in,” she said.
“Herd immunity” is the point at which there are enough people either vaccinated or with antibodies so that the virus cannot spread as easily. Christ said that can’t happen now because the demand for the vaccine still far exceeds the supply. It won’t be until that situation is reversed, she said, that there will be a big push to convince people to “roll up their sleeves.”
That will involve tailoring the communications strategy, she said.
One way will be to work with what Christ calls “vaccine-hesitant” groups. That means providing more information to answer their questions and getting “trusted leaders” to promote vaccination.
Doctors themselves will have to talk up the idea, she added.