Missoula’s health department, emergency managers face rising COVID response costs

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Posted at 1:48 PM, Apr 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-15 16:12:05-04

MISSOULA — Over the past month, the City-County Health Department has scrambled to stay ahead of COVID-19 while the Office of Emergency Management has carried out protective measures geared toward public safety.

Along the way, the costs of fighting the pandemic have begun to mount, approaching $500,000, and most expect they’ll continue to climb given the uncertain future that lies ahead.

Ellen Leahy, director of the health department, and Adrian Beck, manager of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, said added staffing and necessary supplies, including protective equipment for frontline workers, represent the bulk of the ongoing costs.

“We’ve been tracking costs here at the health department,” said Leahy. “We started hiring extra staff as early as March 2. As of last Friday, we have spent $147,618 on personnel exclusively for the COVID response, and another $22,502 for operations for a total of $170,120.”

Leahy said the health department has begun pulling from its cash reserves, which are built on a number of funding sources including federal grants. The department received a modest boost of $135,000 earlier this month earmarked for the virus.

Leahy said the reserve is mandated by Missoula County, though her department’s response to the crisis is outpacing what’s held in reserve. Last year, the health department tapped the reserve during its response to an outbreak of pertussis cases.

“But this is quite a bit more expensive already,” Leahy said. “Our response team, with existing and new personnel, is probably around 70 to 80 employees.”

Beck said the costs at the Office of Emergency Management stand at $185,000, and most of that is based in supplies and staffing. The office generally keeps a small number of employees on hand, but is built to ramp up in the face of an emergency.

“When these types of events happen, we bring in incident management professionals from within our community to work specifically for the Office of Emergency Management,” Beck said. “They carry out the incident organization and missions on the ground that classify as emergency protective measures.”

Expenses logged under the classification of an emergency protective measure are largely eligible for reimbursement by FEMA. The county received around $170,000 from FEMA after the 2018 floods, and it had most of that funding on hand when COVID-19 hit.

But emergency managers are using that funding now to cover their response, and expenses incurred today won’t be reimbursed until a later date, Beck said.

“We always have an eye on what we’re doing, and we right-size our operations based on what’s going on – we’re always in that analysis,” Beck said.

“We anticipate, based on the presidential disaster declaration, that 75% of the costs we incur through the duration of this event will be reimbursable at some point in the future. But what’s challenging is that the cash we have on hand, and the budget year we’re in, isn’t necessarily when we’ll be reimbursed. There’s always some catch up we have to do.”

Beck said her office is also facing the approaching spring runoff, which could result in flooding. The fire season won’t be far behind. The COVID outbreak has stretched local resources and forced emergency managers to rethink how they respond now and in the months ahead.

“There are so many unknowns, not only knowing how long this event will go, but what the downstream effects will be on some of the things going on today,” said Beck. “The scope of the impacts of this type of event is something that’s challenging us to stretch our imagination from an emergency management standpoint to react and plan for what’s coming next.”

Leahy said her office also is adjusting, though the uncertainties that lie ahead bring new challenges. Other revenue streams relied upon by the health department have dried up during the pandemic, and the agency’s budget is built on that revenue.

The long-term impacts are not yet known, Leahy added.

“I’d love to be wrong about this, but I don’t think we’re going to have a season-ending event with this like you do with forest fires,” said Leahy. “This is going to be around. Even when the emergency ends, we’re all going to be dealing it in some way.”