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San Antonio to Run Out of Federal Coronavirus Aid at End of Year

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San Antonio likely will run out of money to fund the city’s public health response to COVID-19 if federal lawmakers don’t come up with more money to fight the spread of the disease, the city’s top health official warned Tuesday.

 

The Metropolitan Health District received more than $57 million earlier this year to spend on coronavirus tests, case investigations, contact tracing and related expenses — part of the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion stimulus aimed at alleviating the economic and financial fallout from the pandemic.

 

Metro Health has $31.5 million of that money left and must spend it by the end of the year — a requirement spelled out in the law.

 

It is unclear when or if Congress will pass another round of pandemic relief. As a result, Metro Health officials face the possibility that, come January, they won’t have funds needed to fight the virus and track its spread.

 

“The big question in our minds right now is, ‘Do we have enough funding to go from Jan. 1 through the end of this pandemic?’” Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager and interim director of Metro Health, said during the daily coronavirus briefing. “I think the answer to that is ‘no.’”

 

The looming loss of federal dollars comes as City Council members weigh the city’s budget for the next fiscal year.

 

Metro Health is slated to receive $3.6 million more than it did last year, largely because of a new city effort to put all violence prevention programs under one roof at the health agency. As part of the change, 20 civilian employees of the San Antonio Police Department who work with domestic violence victims will move to Metro Health.

 

Nearly two-thirds of the health department’s $43 million budget comes from state and federal grants. The city funds the balance.

 

During a budget briefing Tuesday, Bridger and City Councilwoman Ana Sandoval, who chairs the Community Health and Equity Committee, floated the possibility of finding more city dollars for Metro Health to give the city greater control over how the department operates and equip it to deal with future pandemics.

 

COVID-19 has ravaged the San Antonio area since mid-March, killing 637 people and infecting 44,265 by Metro Health’s count. The virus surged over the summer, peaking at more than 1,000 new cases a day in June and July and severely straining San Antonio hospitals. But the growth in cases and hospitalizations has fallen steadily since mid-July.

 

Of Metro Health’s 427 employees, about three of every four are involved in responding to COVID-19. The agency has had to pull workers from other divisions, such as those who administer immunizations or epidemiologists who track the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis, to help with case investigations and contact tracing.

 

Bridger said Metro Health workers would return to their normal jobs as the number of new cases continues to drop — and as the department brings on outside case investigators through a $2 million contract with the UT Health School of Public Health. The contract calls for the school to hire and train 200 investigators by December.

 

“Health departments are not funded to simultaneously do the work they do and address emergency public health issues such as a 100-year pandemic,” Bridger told City Council members.

 

Sandoval agreed.

 

“Even though this is a 100-year pandemic today, it’s not going to be the last one that we see,” Sandoval said. “There will be other emergencies.”

 

But the question of what to do when the current federal stimulus money runs out went unanswered.

 

Joshua Fechter is a staff writer covering San Antonio government and politics. To read more from Joshua, become a subscriber. [email protected] | Twitter: @JFreports

 

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