Tulare County gets $8.5M to expand testing, staff

Tulare County Public Health accepts funds for added lab capacity disease detection, epidemiologist and public health educators

VISALIA – As Tulare County is dealing with COVID-19 spread, they are accepting state money to help increase testing capacity and communicable disease detection.

The Tulare County Board of Supervisors welcomed an $8.5 million allocation from the state’s Payroll Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act funds at their Sept. 29 meeting. Dedicated toward epidemiological laboratory capacity (ELC) expansion, the funds won’t only help the county contain the current novel coronavirus but also detect future epidemiological threats.

Funding is anticipated to last through Nov. 17, 2022 and will fund an epidemiologist position—making three for the county’s public health department—as well as a health education specialist, health education assistant and a public health nurse. Tulare County Public Health officer Karen Elliott said there is plenty of need for an epidemiologist position even outside of COVID-19.

“As they expand [their role] over the next two years they can help in not just COVID but in any communicable diseases,” Elliott said. She added that sexually transmitted diseases are an area where the county is challenged to keep up with contact tracing, which is part of what this position would be handling.

The funding for ELC will spend the money over six different strategies to enhance detection. According to a California Department of Public Health report the county will spend $638,962 on improving laboratory, surveillance, informative and other workforce capacity; $2.1 million on strengthening laboratory testing; $343,568 to advance electronic data exchange at public health labs; $1 million to improve surveillance and reporting of electronic health data; $3.1 million to use laboratory data to enhance investigation, response, and prevention; and $509,793 to coordinate and engage with partners.

Approximately $600,000 is being dedicated to added testing capacity, Elliot said. According to Health and Human Services director Tim Lutz, Tulare County has already been administering an average of 1,000 tests per day. Elliott said that public health labs alone have grown from processing 20 tests per day when the pandemic began to as many as 300.

“Our lab has been a superstar in a lot of this,” Elliott said.

County public health staff reports stated that the health education specialist will support in the management of the COVID-19 related activities and to oversee the work plan activities and the submission of quarterly progress reports. The health education assistant will assist with outreach and education. And the public health nurse will serve as the infection preventionist and was recommended by the state.

The problem the county is facing now is getting people to volunteer for testing. As of press time Tulare County’s positivity rate is at 5.1%, and it has 9.1 new daily cases per 100,000 people. In order to progress to the state’s next lowest tier for reopening the economy, the county’s new daily cases must be less than 7, and their positivity rate below 8%. Also, cases from the lowest quartile of communities that fall within the Healthy Places Index in Tulare County, must also be below 8%. Those communities are currently at 8%.

Board chairman Pete Vander Poel said Tulare County public health and the Health and Human Services Agency should make a point to let residents know they can be tested more than once, even if they have a negative test. He said that people don’t necessarily realize that because they have a negative test they can return to a testing site for an updated test.

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