COVID-19 Still Rages On, But Some US States Reject Federal Funds To Help
Nov. 2 (Reuters) – As the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through rural U.S. state of Idaho, health officials say they don’t have enough tests to track the spread of the disease or enough medical workers to help the sick.
It is not for lack of funding.
The state’s Republican-led legislature this year voted against $ 40 million in federal aid available for COVID-19 testing in schools. Another $ 1.8 billion federal aid related to the pandemic is lying idle in the state treasury, pending lawmakers’ deployment.
Some Idaho lawmakers have accused Washington of going too far and recklessly spending. Others see the tests as disruptive and unnecessary, especially in schools, as relatively few children have died from the disease.
“If you want your kids to go to school, you can’t test them,” said state representative Ben Adams, a Republican who represents Nampa, a town of about 100,000 in the south. western Idaho.
Meanwhile, the state reports the fifth highest infection rate in the United States, with 369 confirmed cases per 100,000 people, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Schools in at least 14 of Idaho’s 115 districts, including Nampa, have had to temporarily close due to COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of the year, according to Burbio, a digital platform that tracks the activity of American schools.
Idaho’s experience illustrates how political ideology and polarization around the COVID-19 outbreak played a role in mostly conservative states’ decision to reject some federal funding intended to help local authorities to fight against the virus and its economic fallout.
For example, Idaho was one of 26 Republican-led states that ended federally-funded enhanced unemployment benefits before they expired in September. Governor Brad Little said the money discouraged the unemployed from returning to work. At least six studies have shown that the additional benefits have had little or no impact on the US job market.
Idaho has also turned down $ 6 million for early childhood education, as some Republicans in the state have said mothers should be the primary caregivers of their children.
The state also failed to ask for $ 6 million that would have strengthened two safety net programs that help mothers of young children and working families. Little’s administration said they already had enough money for these programs.
Idaho has accepted federal COVID-19 aid. In fact, the rejected funds are only a small part of the nearly $ 2 billion in federal aid that Idaho has spent since March 2020 to fight the virus and support businesses and families, according to figures from the state.
But hundreds of millions more remain intact. Idaho has only deployed $ 780 million, or 30 percent of the $ 2.6 billion it received under the US federal bailout law, enacted in March.
Neighboring Washington state, by contrast, distributed nearly three-quarters of the $ 7.8 billion it received under the legislation. Washington has recorded about 60% as many cases per capita as Idaho since the start of the pandemic, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some in Idaho are enraged that a state of just 1.8 million people is refusing a dime in aid as it struggles to bring the pandemic under control.
With no testing in place, nurses at Nampa schools primarily rely on parents to let them know when a child is infected, the district’s top nurse, Rebekah Burley, told the school board in September. She said she needed three or four more staff to follow up on existing cases and try to keep people in quarantine.
“We are tired, we are stressed and something has to change,” she said.
REJECTION OF FEDERAL MONEY
The refusal of the Red States to accept certain types of federal aid that would benefit their constituents is not new.
For example, a dozen Republican-controlled states rejected billions of dollars available through the landmark Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 to cover more people under the Medicaid Health Program for the Poor, which is funded jointly by the federal government and the states. Lawmakers in these places argued that their states could not afford to pay their share of an expansion. (Idaho was initially among them, but its voters opted for the Medicaid expansion in a 2018 referendum, bypassing state leaders.)
This same dynamic played out during the coronavirus crisis. Since March 2020, Congress has approved six aid packages totaling $ 4.7 trillion under the Republican and Democratic administrations, including the bipartisan CARES law in March 2020 and the Democrat-backed US bailout law this past. year.
Florida and Mississippi have not called for benefits that would give more money to low-income mothers of young children. Four states, including Idaho, North Dakota and Oklahoma, chose not to expand a program that provided cash for groceries to low-income families with school-aged children during the months summer.
Iowa, like Idaho, has refused federal money for COVID-19 testing in schools. New Hampshire has rejected money for vaccinations.
Republican lawmakers in Idaho, like those elsewhere, cite concerns about local control, restrictive terms attached to some aid, and skyrocketing national debt.
“We are shackling future generations to a life of financial slavery,” said Adams, the Idaho lawmaker.
Yet even before the pandemic, Idaho long relied on Washington for a large chunk of its budget. Federal funds represent 36% of state spending in Idaho, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, above the national average of 32%.
State officials say they have enough money to handle the COVID-19 crisis at the moment.
Critics say Idaho’s reluctance to use more federal aid is a symptom of its hands-off approach to COVID-19 security. Few public schools require masks, and local leaders have refused to impose mask warrants, limits on indoor gatherings and other measures to contain the virus.
“There are a lot of people in our legislature and some local officials who really didn’t take this seriously,” said David Pate, the former head of the St. Luke Health System, the largest hospital network in the state.
Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with just 55% of adults and teens fully immunized, compared to 67% nationally.
COVID-19 is hitting Idaho even as cases have plunged across much of the country. Intensive care units statewide are full, forcing hospitals to turn away non-COVID patients. At least 627 residents died of the disease in October, well above last winter’s previous monthly toll, records show.
Idaho received $ 18 million as part of the US bailout to hire more public health workers, but lawmakers have done nothing with that money this year.
Some local public health departments say they don’t have enough staff to keep up with the virus. “We have a lot of people doing a couple of jobs right now,” said Brianna Bodily, spokesperson for the public health agency serving Twin Falls, a southern Idaho town of 50,000. The ministry is working with a budget 12% lower than last year.
Such staff shortages have contributed to a backlog of test results statewide, which the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare says is hampering its ability to provide an up-to-date picture of the prevalence of the disease.
With funds stranded in the state capital, Governor Little announced in August that he would direct $ 30 million from a previous round of COVID-19 aid to school tests.
The Nampa School District has requested some of that money but has yet to set up a testing program, spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck said. According to Superintendent Paula Kellerer, about 20% of students in the district were not attending classes regularly in the first few weeks of the school year due to epidemics.
Jaci Johnson, a resident of Nampa, a mother of two aged 10 and 13, said she and other parents were torn over whether to send their children to class, due to the potential risk.
“Are we going to feed our children to lions, or are we keeping them at home and making them miserable?” Johnson said.
(This story corrects the spelling of the spokesperson for Nampa schools, percentage of absent students)
Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Marla Dickerson
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.