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Pima County to expand free COVID testing with federal dollars
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Pima County to expand free COVID testing with federal dollars

COVID test

The Pima County Health Department is expanding its COVID-19 testing. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the state health department told the county it would no longer fund much of the county's free COVID-19 tests as it has been doing since April.

After the state pulled out of funding most of Pima County’s free COVID-19 testing options, the county is revamping its testing operations using its federally allocated dollars while appealing at the federal level to reimburse money it has already spent. 

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the state health department told the county last Friday it would no longer fund much of the county's free COVID-19 tests as it has been doing since April.

COVID-19 cases in Pima County reported so far in August have already nearly doubled the cases reported in July, according to the data from the state health department, and Pima County Health Director Theresa Cullen says the county is performing nearly 1,400 COVID-19 tests a day.

But as cases spike again, the Arizona Department of Health Services has stopped paying for the county’s contract with its largest testing contractor, Paradigm Laboratories.

The state is still funding nasal swab tests at Tucson International Airport and saliva testing at Ellie Towne Center, but Huckelberry says the state dollars the county relied on for fixed testing sites in underrepresented areas are now gone.

“The testing that we have previously done had been done in a couple of what we call underserved areas — Liberty School, around Irvington, and the downtown obviously serves communities that are disadvantaged in the old barrios,” Huckelberry said. “Those were standing sites. The importance of a standing site is that there is some consistent knowledge in the community about where to be tested if they need to be tested.”

However, ADHS says it has provided “millions of dollars” to the county, which then “elected to use those funds to provide free COVID-19 testing,” Steve Elliott, the communications director for ADHS, said in an email.

According to Elliott, the state health department recently gave the county $2.3 million “to serve as a stopgap to support continued testing through August while the county identified other funding alternatives for locally prioritized efforts.” ADHS also gave the county an additional $750,000 “for the same purposes,” Elliott said.

Pima County has made the availability of free COVID-19 testing a key pillar of its response to the pandemic, spending $49 million on testing to date, according to Huckelberry. The prevalence of testing even led to a Pima County-centered study by the CDC on COVID-19 screening methods.

But Elliott said that's the county's choice — not the state's obligation. 

“The funding and resources that ADHS passes through to counties is intended to support locally prioritized activities but is not intended to support universal free testing for an entire county,” he said.

County administrator appeals to feds

The county will continue free testing by funding its contract with Paradigm and other testing contractors, but that money will come from American Rescue Plan dollars, and the county administrator wants taxpayer dollars already spent on testing reimbursed.

Huckelberry said using the COVID-19 relief money could sustain testing for up to two years, but that comes with the draw down of funding for other pandemic recovery initiatives such as behavioral health and affordable housing.

“Right now, the priority will always be the expenditure of those funds for public health,” he said. “If we exhaust our (American Rescue Plan) funds, it'll be the county general fund.”

According to Huckelberry, most of the $49 million for testing came from federal COVID-19 relief dollars, but $7.5 million came from the county’s general fund.

In February, the county Board of Supervisors considered suspending the county’s free testing program due to a lack of funding, but the program continued after ADHS allocated the county $14.4 million from the CDC’s Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity program for coronavirus testing.

However, those funds only reimbursed testing costs expended after Jan. 15, leaving the county to pay for $7.5 million worth of testing costs incurred before the cutoff date. 

According to Huckelberry, the $14.4 million allocation funded the county’s free testing program from Jan. 15 through March. The state then began funding most of the county’s testing beginning in April. Now, without that funding source, Huckelberry is asking national representatives to either force the state to release the $7.5 million or bypass the state by directly allocating money to the county.

“It is apparent the state is now attempting to shift the COVID-19 testing burden back to the County at a time when testing volumes are skyrocketing,” Huckelberry wrote in letters to Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema as well as U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Tom O’Halleran and Raúl Grijalva.

Huckelberry made the same request to the state’s congressional delegation in March, but the funds were not released. At that time, Huckelberry said: "We were never really at the point where we were still using other funds, that wasn't as critical. And it's become more critical now."

The county administrator says that $7.5 million would hold the county’s testing program over for “several months,” with the hope “there'll be additional funds, and our preference would be to have them directly passed through from federal agencies to the county so we won't have to deal with whether the state will allocate funds or not.”

On Saturday, the county is opening a free COVID-19 antigen testing center at Abrams Public Health Center, 3950 S. Country Club Road. The center will be open Tuesday through Saturday from 1 to 8 p.m., free of charge.

For now, the county will expand its free testing program using federal money while hoping for the reimbursement of its general fund dollars. The first site will be at the Abrams Center, but the program “should evolve over the next week or so,” Huckleberry said.

Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at nludden@tucson.com


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Nicole joined the Star in 2021. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at ASU’s Cronkite school in 2020 and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, AC Press and Arizona Press Club.

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