Plenty of strings attached to KPHD’s COVID funding

COVID funding from the federal government since the spring of 2020 hasn’t just been free money.

Keith Grellner, Kitsap Public Health District administrator, said there were so many strings attached, the district even though it might not be worth dealing with at all.

Two accountants had to be hired just to take care of some of the workload. And for one eight-month period, their staffing was up 40 percent. Money came from four funds, and each had its own set of rules. “There were so many details and strings tied to them that it almost was not worth taking the money,” Grellner said, adding the paperwork is 10- to 12-feet high and growing every day.

Cities and counties also had to go through the same process. The state audits them all to make sure the money is going to the right places. For example, an audit of Kitsap County came up with three findings. Two were for bookkeeping errors, but with one, the money went to the wrong place, although it ended up being corrected.

The KPHD did not get money directly from the feds, but through the state Department of Health instead. KPHD was reimbursed for specific contracts. “They didn’t just give us a pile of money to do whatever we wanted with,” Grellner said. He said if they didn’t do something correctly, “You could be on the hook for all those funds. For a small public agency like ours … that could bankrupt us.”

Collecting and analyzing data was a big part of the health district’s COVID work, along with investigating and tracing. “That was a mammoth part of it,” Grellner said, adding they had to keep track of every positive test from a Kitsap resident, at least the ones they were able to find out about. Some people found out only through home tests and then never reported it.

Grellner said KPHD reached out to people with COVID to give guidance on how to isolate and quarantine their contacts to prevent the spread of the disease. The district would even set up places for people to stay if they didn’t have anywhere to go. KPHD would shop for food or toilet paper for those who needed help.

The health district also set up testing facilities and provided masks, gloves, face shields and test kits to anyone who requested one. The district had to get highly specific and complicated special equipment to store the vaccine until it was needed by healthcare providers. And they took care of public information and messaging.

Grellner said KPHD had one audit finding the entire time, billing one group twice. He said he’s not aware of any audit findings of any substance countywide. “Honest mistakes can be made,” he said, but added there can be dishonest ones, too. “It happens everywhere.” Grellner said they did it right “despite how complex it was and the herculean amount of work.”

He said they basically had to be subcontractors for fire departments, schools, doctors, the emergency medical center, etc. “It was a big thing for us, and we already were overwhelmed by our regular jobs,” he said. “We had to take on all that extra work or the county would not get vaccinated.”

Piles of money

The federal government handed out money in four funds, and the state received almost $10.92 billion to support COVID response, relief and recovery efforts.

The four funds include American Rescue Plan Act $350 billion, Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act $2.2 trillion; State Fiscal Recovery Fund $350 billion; and Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act $27 billion.

In 2021, Kitsap County received $52.7 million from ARPA funds alone. About $23.3 million went to public health, $10 million to lost revenue recovery; $9.9 million for negative economic impacts, $8.9 million for infrastructure, and $650,000 for administration. Those monies went to subsidize efforts to help with homelessness, childcare, small-business assistance, broadband, and hospitality and tourism.

The money needs to be committed by the end of 2023 and spent by the end of 2024.

The Kitsap Recovery Plan 2022 report adds that help for the homeless included shelters 24/7 and 150 new beds at nonprofits. Funds also provided 100,000 cloth masks and 177,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to the homeless.

Funds also helped 3,028 Kitsap residents with $20.5 million in rent and utility assistance over 1½ years through the Kitsap Eviction Prevention Assistance program.