Pandemic takes financial toll on Countryside Public Health in western Minnesota
Dealing with the pandemic is projected to cost Countryside Public Health $710,914 this year. State funds and other sources are helping, but the agency serving the five counties in the Upper Minnesota River Valley is asking for federal CARES Act funds from the counties to make up an expected $538,313.78 hole in its budget.
GRANITE FALLS — Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is projected to cost Countryside Public Health $710,914.27 this year, Liz Auch, executive director, told the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
She had updated the Swift County Board of Commissioners one week earlier on the toll of the pandemic.
Minnesota Department of Health and other funding sources will help offset $172,600.49 of the unexpected costs. It leaves the public health agency with a projected $538,313.78 hole in its budget.
Auch is asking the five counties served by the agency — Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine — to allocate Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds to cover that COVID-19-caused shortfall.
Auch told the Swift County Commissioners that the federal CARES act clearly states the funds are intended “for a public health COVID response. You could not make it any more clear,” she said, a point she reiterated this week in Yellow Medicine County.
The commissioners in both counties have started discussions on how to allocate just over $1 million in federal CARES funds each has received. Based on a joint powers formula, Auch is asking the counties to contribute roughly 10 percent of their CARES funds toward Countryside Public Health’s unexpected costs.
The other option, she said, is for the agency to tap reserves and place much of the burden on taxpayers in the five counties through increases in their levies.
She emphasized that the help is needed for this year's budget. The agency does not know what its COVID-19-related costs will be in 2021, but right now it is estimating its costs at $60,000 a month.
Countryside Public Health has 30 staff members serving the five counties, and 28 of them have been handling COVID-19-related duties. Those duties include everything from contact tracing, assisting and providing essential services to those infected by the virus, providing public information via traditional and social media, assisting restaurants and other businesses in how to safely operate, and responding to hotline questions from the public.
As of Tuesday, according to slides Auch presented about the agency's work in isolation and quarantine support, there have been 174 people in isolation after testing positive for the virus in the five counties. There have been 26 people monitored as suspected cases early in the pandemic when testing was lacking. The public health staff have also monitored six people in quarantine who were exposed to COVID-19 but not confirmed positive themselves.
Auch said Countryside keeps staff on duty or on call seven days a week. Its staff members contact infected persons within minutes of being informed by the Minnesota Department of Health of any new case. Staff will provide essential services to those infected and consequently quarantined, which can range from delivering prescriptions and foods to thermometers and “family care” packages with infection control materials.
The agency and the Minnesota Department of Health are responsible for contact tracing in the region. Staff have responded to 97 referrals from the Minnesota Department of Health, 98 from area health services and 11 from others. As of one week ago, the local agency has been responsible for contact tracing in 63 of the COVID-19 cases, or 44 percent of the total in the five counties.
Contact tracing can be difficult, but Auch said the fact that a local agency and local number appears on the phones of those being contacted is a plus. The agency has had an 86 percent success rate while attempting 1,346 contacts.
Still, the director pointed out that it can be difficult to reach those needing to be contacted. In one case, she told the Swift County Board of Commissioners that a staff member devoted nearly 12 hours to contact the members of one non-English speaking family. The agency relies on interpreters to assist.
Based on the contact tracing by Countryside staff, of the positive cases in the five counties, 26 percent have been persons of Hispanic ethnicity; 55 percent non-Hispanic; and 18 percent where the ethnicity is not known.
In the five counties, 30 percent of those infected with COVID-19 to date have been persons in the age range of 20 to 29 years, making this the largest age block of those infected, according to Auch. Females comprise 43 percent and males 52 percent of those infected to date.
The counties have been fortunate in not having experienced any large spikes or cases in long-term care facilities, she said.
Trend lines show the fastest rising curve of new cases is in Chippewa County, but Auch said Swift and Big Stone counties are recently showing upticks. While Lac qui Parle County has only six confirmed cases to date, Auch cautioned that the prevalence of the virus in the county is probably greater than the recorded number indicates.