A large portion of the grant — $1.9 million over 30 months — goes to Public Health’s test sites. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Public Health’s efforts to “box in” the coronavirus got a $6.1 million boost from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act in the form of a grant from the state, which the Board of Supervisors accepted on October 13. The infusion of funds underscores the massive increase in contact tracing, testing, outreach, and reporting that Santa Barbara County’s health department personnel have diligently tackled since COVID-19 arrived in the county in April.

Suzanne Jacobson, the department’s financial officer and deputy director, explained after the hearing that the funds were retroactive to May 18 and could be used through November 17, 2022. One quarter of it — or $1,528,134 — was added to Public Health’s approximately $103 million budget for this fiscal year; the department addresses a wide range of cares from foodborne illnesses and children’s health to animal control. Out of the new funds, an epidemiologist/biostatistician will be brought on staff, as well as a second assistant Health Officer to provide support to that position, which is on duty 24/7. Jacobson said an assistant has been working with Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s Health Officer, in the arena of potential hotspots like skilled nursing facilities to make sure infection prevention protocols are complete. The second assistant has been on contract and is a formerly retired pediatrician — who will carry the title “infection preventivist” — whose focus will be on school reopenings.

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A large portion of the grant — $1.9 million over 30 months — goes to Public Health’s test sites: “$1.9 million sounds like a lot, but it goes quickly,” Jacobson noted. The staffing cost runs about $50,000 per month. Processing the tests through the Quest laboratories costs about $150,000 when at full capacity, or about 1,000 tests per month, and that’s after actively collecting insurance payments to keep costs down, Jacobson said. Expanding testing is among the projects Public Health has focused on, especially to communities of color, to people who live in testing deserts, and at places where case numbers are increasing, such as the pop-up testing centers in Isla Vista.

Another $2.4 million of the larger grant will go to contact tracing, an essential part of keeping the disease boxed in, and also to pay for the use of motel rooms to temporarily house people who need to be quarantined but can’t isolate at home. None these concepts are new to Public Health, Jacobson said, “just standard good public health policy.” What has been new is working with the state’s various data systems introduced for the pandemic, including the latest, a comprehensive database called California Connected.

From her perch in the finance office where she’s worked for the past two decades, Jacobson has seen her colleagues respond to the pandemic as it emerged. “We went through H1N1 a few years back, and we’ve been through events like fires. But nothing like this one,” she said. “They’re an amazing group of individuals.” Jacobson said the intensity surrounding coronavirus is now slightly lower than when so little was known about the disease. “We’re still wary and planning for spikes and surges,” she added.

Of the new funding the department received, “The main part of the grant is to build infrastructure now and for the future,” Jacobson said. “COVID won’t end when there’s a vaccine.”

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