Health districts benefit from ’rescue’ funds sent to towns
This is a part of a series on how southeastern Connecticut municipalities are spending American Rescue Plan Act funds.
With American Rescue Plan Act funds flowing to school districts, municipalities and counties, health districts were “left out of the loop” on the federal COVID-19 pandemic recovery dollars.
So, Ledge Light Health District Director Steve Mansfield took matters into his own hands.
Last summer, he wrote letters to member municipalities ― East Lyme, Groton, Ledyard, Lyme, New London, North Stonington, Old Lyme, Stonington and Waterford ― asking for 1% of their ARPA allocations.
In an Aug. 3 letter, Mansfield spelled out some potential uses of the funding: supporting community members who are isolating and quarantining, expanding public communications, adding staff, purchasing a dedicated mass vaccination vehicle.
A lot has changed since then, but Ledge Light largely has gotten its request: According to a spreadsheet Mansfield provided, member municipalities have collectively allocated 0.95% of their ARPA dollars to Ledge Light, totaling $470,371.20.
The City of Groton hasn’t yet allocated its ARPA funding, so that $26,372.16 request is pending. Some other municipalities rounded up or down, meaning they allocated between 97.5% and 103.2% of Ledge Light’s request. Mansfield said Ledge Light has the cash on hand from all municipalities except the City of Groton, Town of Groton and Ledyard.
Ledge Light did get that van and added more staff.
Mansfield said the health district already had a Ford F-150 and years ago purchased two trailers to bring to mass dispensing sites, where many people are vaccinated in a short period. But in the pandemic, staff started using personal vehicles and SUVs, because the vaccination locations were semi-permanent.
“We really saw a need to have something that was self-contained (and) easily drivable by all of our staff,” Mansfield said. And so Ledge Light used ARPA funds to purchase a Dodge van about a year ago, at a cost of $41,438.30.
The trailers now are being utilized for storage and backup. But Mansfield said they are still useful and will be used for standing flu clinics in the fall.
He said there were things for which Ledge Light planned to use ARPA funds but ended up using other funding sources, due to different eligibility requirements. For example, he said depending on the hiring date, public health nurses are paid for either through ARPA funding or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity, or ELC, program.
Ledge Light had only one public health nurse before the pandemic but has since hired three more. Mansfield said he doesn’t know how long the health district will need four public health nurses.
He also noted that the “evolving nature of the pandemic” has meant that funds have not necessarily been spent how staff originally anticipated. For example, Ledge Light didn’t spend as much as expected providing support to people isolating, and he said demand for vaccinations and testing has “tapered down pretty dramatically.”
Deputy Director Jen Muggeo said Ledge Light budgeted $30,000 in ARPA funds to support people isolating and quarantining but has used only a few hundred dollars to date. She said the community resource coordinator contracts the state facilitated continued for longer than expected – but have since ended – and contact tracing has evolved since Ledge Light put together its original plan.
But she said since COVID-19 infection can yield significant impacts on housing, food and employment for some community members, Ledge Light is working to enact a plan to use ARPA funds to prevent possible impacts like hunger and homelessness.
On the other hand, the cost of a new generator will be above what was budgeted: Muggeo said the project was budgeted at $20,000 but the actual cost to date is $33,000. Mansfield said Ledge Light hasn’t paid for that yet but has a contractor.
The purpose of the generator is to ensure that vaccine refrigeration equipment remains powered during electrical outages, Mansfield said. Ledge Light currently relies on an automated alarm system that notifies staff members on their cellphones when power is out, and then a staff member has to relocate the vaccines elsewhere. Lawrence + Memorial Hospital has helped in such situations.
How Uncas Health District is using ARPA funds and other grants
For Uncas Health District, Director Patrick McCormack followed Ledge Light’s lead both in asking for 1% of funding from member municipalities ― which most allocated, he said ― and in getting a new vehicle.
Uncas Health District covers Bozrah, Franklin, Griswold, Lebanon, Lisbon, Montville, Preston, Salem, Sprague and Voluntown.
McCormack said Uncas ordered its mass vaccination vehicle in January and it just arrived within the last two weeks. The health district spent $48,997.40 to purchase a Dodge Ram ProMaster, the biggest purchase using ARPA funds to date, but the van still needs an interior buildout and Uncas Health District signage wrapped around the exterior.
McCormack said this will allow nursing and clinical staff to go from place to place rather than bringing multiple vehicles, and in inclement weather, members of the public could go into the van rather than having to use tents.
“As we move away from the work strictly around COVID, our hope is that we’ll be able to take it out to places like health fairs, school events and senior centers,” McCormack said. “We want to start getting out into the field to places where people are congregating again, and the idea is we would bring a breadth of services, so we’re still trying to work out how many things we can offer.”
In partnership with Hartford HealthCare and the nonprofit service agency United Way, Uncas Health District has “health hubs” at community spots such as Otis Library and St. Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich, and McCormack hopes the van will be ready to go to these events by mid-August.
He said this is an opportunity for Uncas Health District to provide its services at the same time and place as other agencies. Beyond COVID-19 vaccinations, that could mean flu vaccines and blood pressure screenings.
He also hopes to continue offering services to people who cannot leave their home.
McCormack said he also is looking to improve communication, such as by redoing the phone system and “some other creative ways to get information out to the public.” He expects a lot of the district’s ELC funding to go toward communications.
“Our website became very active during COVID and we want to keep it that way. Our social media became very active and we want to keep it that way,” McCormack said. He wants to continue communication with superintendents, school nurses and businesses, but with updated lists and contact information so it’s easier to get information out in the event of an emergency.
He said funding earlier in the pandemic was used for “that initial emergency response and hiring the contact tracers and making sure we have nurses to do vaccinations.” Now the district is “looking more holistically,” which means trying to address barriers to health care, such as language, lack of transportation, and medical mistrust.
Going forward, McCormack said Uncas Health District also is looking to use ARPA funds to continue to support staffing and the purchase of supplies.
When President Joe Biden signed the ARPA into law last March, he called it “transformational” and said “it’s all about rebuilding the backbone of this country. The backbone of this country are hardworking folks.”
But the president did warn at the time, “We’re not finished yet. Conditions can change. The scientists have warned us about new variants of this virus.” And change they did: Local cities and towns made a lot of decisions about ARPA spending before the omicron variant of the coronavirus. Demand for at-home tests surged in January, but demand has since waned for both tests and masks, despite community transmission levels remaining high across the country.
Ledge Light Health District still has supplies available. Mansfield sat down for an interview this past week in the library of Ledge Light’s office in New London, where N95 masks lined shelves on one wall and boxes of at-home test kits were stacked against the opposite wall. He feels that Ledge Light is “adequately funded.”
McCormack said he thinks the way municipalities are using ARPA funds is appropriate, because they’re identifying both infrastructure needs and opportunities to “return us to some level of normalcy, which is really important from our perspective.”
Municipalities have allocated ARPA funds for heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, improvements; water and sewer upgrades; addressing food insecurity; mental health services; outdoor recreation; premium pay for essential workers; aid to small businesses and more.
“If you would’ve asked me how we would’ve best spent the money a year ago, I probably would’ve given you a different answer than I would have today,” McCormack said, “so that’s why we’re looking at things that are more stable and part of our work going forward. It’s more than just putting together flyers or signage or creating a communication strategy around one issue.”