The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 15, 2022 1:00 am

Virus cost county over $1 million

Money reimbursed, but pandemic isn't over


Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Allen County Department of Health has spent an extra $1.28 million to fight the virus.

Workers performed almost 60,000 virus tests and administered more than 52,000 vaccinations. They also conducted more than 1,300 inspections to address complaints that the governor's emergency orders weren't being followed. Workers made thousands of phone calls to trace close contacts of the infected and answered more than 2,500 hotline calls from people with questions.

The good news for Allen County taxpayers is $1.25 million was reimbursed through federal and state money and patients' insurance companies. The remaining $30,000 was covered through grants from three local nonprofits: The Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation and AWS Foundation.

In other words, the county broke even on what administrators call “hard costs” – equipment, supplies, security, cleaning, printing and employment contracts for additional workers.

But that's not the whole story of pandemic-related expenses, Mindy Waldron, health department administrator, said last week. The pandemic is not yet over, she said, and the prospects for reimbursement for future expenses are slim.

“We don't expect any further money to go to health departments,” Waldron said.

That's despite Allen County receiving $73.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act – or ARPA – funds. The money, mostly still unspent, was awarded to help with pandemic expenses and future preparedness.

But that money is not specifically targeted for health departments, Waldron said. And, as the department begins to budget for next year, the staff is still catching up with work the pandemic put on the back burner while 75% of the staff's time was devoted to dealing with COVID-19.

The department's annual budget paid for that staff time, Waldron said. The uncertainty now comes in how the department might fund additional COVID-19 expenses, should the need arise – especially given the state government's history of low spending for public health.

Waldron said Indiana ranks 45th of the 50 states – and has been as low as 49th – in public health funding. The state moved up in the rankings only because other states spent less, not because Indiana started spending more, she said.

Waldron serves on the Governor's Public Health Commission, which is now preparing a report on how Indiana funds public health. She said “chronic underfunding” of public health predates the pandemic. But coping with it underscored the squeeze on local health departments.

On average, Indiana's counties spend about $6 per person per year. Allen County, which includes Indiana's second-largest city and third-largest health department, spends about double that, $14 per person per year, Waldron said.

The local health department's annual budget typically totals about $5.5 million, with just under half from property taxes and the rest from fees, reimbursements and grants.

Waldron said she is approaching this round of budgeting as she would in any year before the pandemic. She said she will again seek grants and other assistance, should COVID-19 strongly reemerge.

“We really can't complain on the money end,” Waldron said, because federal and state assistance came through.

But with the pandemic not yet out of the picture, she's concerned that Hoosiers still “aren't investing much on the front end” for prevention efforts.

“That's where we've got to do better,” Waldron said, adding, “I think if there's something we've learned over the past two years, it's we cannot predict the future.”

Coronavirus update

Allen sees surge in cases

The number of newly reported COVID-19 cases in Allen County jumped by almost 60% last week.

The county on Friday reported 356 new cases reported since May 7. The total for the week ended May 6 was 227. The week before that saw 182 new cases.

New cases are no longer reported daily because they have fallen drastically, and day-to-day fluctuations aren't as predictive of trends, Mindy Waldron, Allen County Department of Health administrator, said last week. The county saw more than 1,000 confirmed cases daily at some points during the pandemic.

Waldron said a sustained and substantial rise in weekly cases and an increase in hospitalizations could trigger new concerns. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week again listed Allen County's COVID-19 level as “low.”

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the county has reported 105,317 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,152 deaths as of Friday. Total fatalities include one new coronavirus-related death reported in the past week.

The nation surpassed 1 million deaths last week, and 82.3 million cases have been reported.

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