Clark County Public Health is in the process of finalizing a request to greatly increase its staff for COVID-19 response. Once the request is approved, it will mark a major step toward Clark County creating the infrastructure needed to ease physical distancing restrictions.
According to the request, which is still preliminary, Public Health is seeking close to $7.1 million to hire 80 new staff and pay for staff equipment such as computers, telephones and personal protective equipment. About $608,000 of the funding would be directed toward needs for the county’s Motel 6 quarantine and isolation site in east Vancouver.
The funding would likely be tied to Clark County’s portion of the CARES Act — federal legislation to provide localities COVID-19 relief.
Clark County has received around $27 million from the CARES Act. Public Health has already received a little more than $1 million from state and federal sources for coronavirus response, so the total funding would be around $8.1 million.
Eighteen case investigators and 18 contact tracers could be hired, according to the request. These jobs would be advertised as 12-month project positions, and if they are needed longer, the Clark County Council would need to approve it, according to Clark County Public Health Public Information Officer Marissa Armstrong.
It’s still unknown if all hirings would happen at once, or if hirings would happen in phases, depending on whether cases rise or stagnate in coming weeks.
Armstrong said in an email that it will take about a week to train investigators and about three days to train contact tracers.
“We really need enough staff to do active monitoring of folks in quarantine,” Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said at Wednesday’s Clark County Board of Health meeting.
At the meeting, every Clark County Council member said they would immediately meet to discuss the request as soon as it’s ready.
In a phone interview Thursday, Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz said she can’t speak for the council, but she does expect the council to quickly approve the funding request once it’s ready.
Lentz said she trusts Public Health to know what resources and staff it needs, and how much it needs.
“My perspective is generally that we pay the experts and professionals to do their best work,” Lentz said.
Lentz, and Clark County Councilor John Blom, have been advocates for increasing public health funding, in general. Local health jurisdictions across the U.S. have had budgets shrink by as much as 30 percent since 2008, and have lost about 60,000 workers in that time frame.
A 2019 legislative decision package from the state Department of Health asked for $450 million in funding per biennium, but Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget only approved $22 million.
If approved, 80 new staff members would represent close to a 72 percent increase in Public Health’s staff of about 110 employees. Public Health currently does not have enough staff to do active monitoring of confirmed cases, which means calling them every day to check on symptoms.
It also does not have enough staff to do outreach to every close contact of a case to go over isolation protocols. Currently Public Health reaches out to close contacts of confirmed cases who are in high-risk or congregate settings such as medical or jail workers. For lower-risk cases, who don’t have connections to congregate settings, Public Health still contacts those cases, but gives them information on self-isolation to pass along to their close contacts.
More staff would allow Public Health to do greater outreach and monitoring.
The staff increases, along with increased testing, are a key part of easing physical distancing measures before a vaccine arrives. Once a positive case is confirmed, Public Health investigators find out when the person started to have symptoms, where they have been, and who they might have had close contact with. Then contact tracers reach out to close contacts, so they can isolate themselves and stem the spread of the virus.
“We ran out of the ability to do everything we’d like to do,” Melnick told The Columbian of lacking resources in mid-April. “There’s certain things we need to have in place in terms of disease control efforts. We need to have a robust staff.”