Pierce County COVID response faces $14.8 million budget shortfall as fourth wave continues | KNKX

Pierce County COVID response faces $14.8 million budget shortfall as fourth wave continues

May 6, 2021

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is facing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit as its massive response to the pandemic continues.

Agency leaders anticipate a funding gap of at least $14.8 million for 2021, even after factoring in state and federal COVID-relief dollars. And some of that funding is subject to pending eligibility, meaning it isn’t a sure thing just yet.   

“And our current funding that we have agreements through the state and others is projected to be exhausted by August,” Chris Schuler, the finance and operations director for the health department, told the Board of Health in a meeting Wednesday.

The estimated costs of continued pandemic response in Pierce County this year is $72.2 million. That includes resources for the mass vaccination site at the Tacoma Dome, where people are being vaccinated every day without appointments. 

To cover the mounting costs, the health department is relying on $27.4 million in revenue, including allocations from the state and federal governments, and another $30 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the reimbursement from FEMA is subject to eligibility and other requirements. 

“They are fairly substantial,” he said of the requirements. “We are also working very closely with Pierce County Emergency Management, who has a good degree of expertise in FEMA.”

Schuler said that expertise and assistance from the state Department of Health on the reimbursement application will help secure those critical funds, which are allocated specifically for non-provider mass vaccination sites. 

Still, once those funds are secured, the combined $57.4 million still leaves a nearly $15 million hole in the budget as public health officials work to contain COVID and administer vaccines. 

The Legislature did add significant COVID funding to the state's budget recently. But it's unclear how that money will translate to relief for local health departments. 

As of last week, more than 525,700 doses had been administered to Pierce County residents — with an average of 5,300 people per day getting their shots.    

That translated to 23 percent of county residents who were fully vaccinated, including a majority of adults 65 and older (more than 67 percent). And 33 percent of residents had received their first doses last week. (Those numbers don’t include data from Veterans Affairs about the number of people vaccinated at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.) 

But once those residents have received their second doses in the coming weeks, that still leaves well over 40 percent of the county unvaccinated. Public health officials are exhausting efforts to get as many of those people vaccinated as possible. 

During Wednesday’s meeting, officials said they are brainstorming ideas to remove barriers and make it as convenient as possible for those who are less motivated to proactively seek doses. 

Board member and County Executive Bruce Dammeier referenced the work of a six-week task force assembled by the county that includes 40 leaders from local businesses, cities and schools. 

“We’re giving them accurate information on our current situation,” he said, including information to reduce vaccine hesitancy. “We’re supporting them in doing some very creative things.” 

Among the top goals of the group: getting as many Pierce County residents vaccinated as quickly as possible. 

Wednesday’s presentation about the budget shortfall came one day after Gov. Jay Inslee announced that all counties will remain in their current phases of the state’s economic reopening plan. 

Last month, Pierce County was one of three counties forced to roll back to Phase 2 due to a spike in COVID cases. In Phase 3 restaurants, bars and gyms can operate at 50 percent capacity. At Phase 2, that's reduced to 25 percent.

The latest numbers show Pierce County is not hitting the 14-day case rate it would need to advance to Phase 3. Wednesday’s report from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department lists the case rate per 100,000 at 379.1. 

To move up a phase, the county also would need fewer than five new COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 people over a one-week period. Hospitalizations in Pierce County are up, according to data shared during Wednesday’s presentation to the board; the rate is currently 10 per 100,000.