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Pima County supervisors to decide next week on ending free COVID-19 testing program
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Pima County supervisors to decide next week on ending free COVID-19 testing program

Without the testing program, those seeking a test would have to go through their insurance providers or pay for it out of pocket

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will make the official decision at its March 16 meeting. With funds limited, the county is already planning to scale back its PCR testing program.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will decide on whether to suspend the county’s free COVID-19 testing program at its meeting March 16.

The county is already planning to scale back the testing program in the meantime as it deals with limited funding.

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County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says the Morris K. Udall Center and the downtown testing sites will close within the next 10 days. Also, the Kino testing site may also close or scale back by May 1 to make room for providing vaccines there in an indoor, air-conditioned location.

Without the free testing program, those seeking a test would have to go through their insurance providers or pay for it out of pocket, putting the financial burden on the county’s most vulnerable residents.

Furthermore, halting the testing program would hinder a vital indicator of the true spread of COVID-19 across the county.

Huckelberry asked the board to consider suspending the county’s testing program Feb. 18 after the Arizona Department of Health Services said it would only reimburse $1 million in testing costs out of the $48 million in COVID-19 testing the county incurred since April 2020.

Before a Feb. 19 supervisors meeting where a vote to consider suspending testing could have taken place, the state health department announced it was giving counties $100 million in federal funding to support testing efforts.

The state said the funds would be distributed by a base amount of $100,000 to each county with the rest of the money allocated proportionate to each county’s population. Based on this formula, Pima County is receiving $14.4 million for testing.

The funding comes from around $419 million given to the state health department by the CDC as part of an agreement made at the end of January.

As of March 2, the county has yet to receive the funds.

Huckelberry contends the allocation system fails to recognize which counties are conducting the most COVID-19 tests. He says Pima County has provided nearly half of all state testing since the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 passed on Dec. 21.

Based on results from a County Supervisors Association survey, Pima County appears to be the largest provider for PCR COVID-19 testing in the state. Other counties primarily provide state-funded Binex-NOW antigen tests, which a CDC study revealed performs poorly compared to PCR tests in detecting asymptomatic populations.

State health director Dr. Cara Christ has indicated the federally sourced funds apply to costs incurred only after Jan. 15. Huckelberry says the county has spent nearly $7.6 million on testing from Dec. 21 to Jan. 15.

From Jan. 15 to Feb. 19, when the latest evaluation period ended, the county spent $5.2 million.

The county administrator said he’s “fairly certain” the county will win an appeal to the state to reimburse costs accrued between Jan. 1 to Jan. 15, which was $4.1 million. He’s not so sure about costs from Dec. 21 to Dec. 31, however, which was $3.5 million.

Therefore, Huckelberry reasons the $14.36 million state allocation will sustain the county’s free testing program until around March 16.

The city of Tucson has used about $8 million of its CARES Act money for testing and has nearly exhausted the funds, Huckelberry said. The county has asked Arizona State University to take over the city-run testing centers within the next 10 days. ASU uses a saliva testing mechanism that the state pays for.

Reach Star reporter Nicole Ludden at nludden@tucson.com


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