PINAL CO., AZ. (3TV/CBS 5) - In a 3-2 vote the Pinal County Board of Supervisors turned down millions in grant money that would have focused on COVID-19 "vaccine equity."
Dr. Tascha Spears, the public health director in Pinal County, addressed supervisors at a public meeting on Wednesday before the vote. The proposed funding included roughly $3.3 million in federal dollars. "Just by virtue of location in Pinal County, there are some communities who are underserved," Dr. Spears said. She says there are rural areas where folks may be farther away to bigger chains like Walmart. Other underserved communities, she pointed out, include the homeless population and incarcerated people.
According to the meeting agenda, the money would have been for local health departments "serving racial and ethnic communities at increased risk of COVID-19." The funds would have been available through June 2024 and required a new position for a vaccine equity coordinator. The majority of the grant though could have gone to pay for vaccination efforts like mobile vaccine clinics.
"Did we identify that there was a problem before we sought the grant, or did we seek the grant then look for a problem?," asked Pinal County Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh on Wednesday. In an interview with Arizona's Family, Cavanaugh called the grant a waste of money, questioning exactly how it would be spent. "We can get the same thing done," he said. "We can buy a van for $50,000, instead of $3.5 million."
Cavanaugh doesn't believe we need the federal government in every aspect of our lives. "The federal government, the best job they do, is wasting money," he said. "And this $3.4 million dollar grant would have provided one public health official here in Pinal County, a nurse. And the rest largely would have largely gone to some as yet unknown unnamed contractor."
Cavanuagh voted to turn down the measure as did Supervisors Jeffrey McClure and Jeff Serdy. Supervisors Mike Goodman and Stephen Miller were in support of passing it. In an email, Serdy told Arizona's Family he voted it down "in order to retain local control." "I'm not too concerned that our citizens don't have access to the vaccine if they want it because it is now widely available for free," Serdy said. Arizona's Family did reach out to the other supervisors for comment but did not hear back yet.
Dr. Spears said these federal funds in particular are made available to counties with a certain social vulnerability index determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes factors like socio-economic status, transportation and housing.
"Initially we had people who called saying they were going to shoot up public health clinics if they didn't get their vaccine that day, as opposed to the other extreme as well," Dr. Spears told the supervisors. Lately there has been an increase in calls regarding booster shots, she said.
A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Health Services says around 47% of people in Pinal County have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
In a Tweet this week, former AZDHS director Will Humble wrote the vote was a "stunning" development, asking "in what world is that OK?"
Wow. Stunning development in Pinal County.@PinalCounty Board of Supervisors just voted down accepting $3.3M in federal relief funds that @pinalhealth could have used over the next 3 years to provide #COVID19 vaccine to lower income communities.In what world is that OK?— Will Humble (@willhumble_az) September 1, 2021
"It is right in the wheelhouse of what public health is trying to accomplish these days, which is to improve vaccination rates," Humble said. "Especially in harder to reach communities, communities of color, lower-income areas."
Humble says the funds could have been used in a variety of ways, including vaccine outreach for kids ages 5-11 once they qualify. "You've got to jump out of your shoes when you're making decisions and look at it, if you're an elected official, from the perspective of all of your constituents," Humble said. He says that includes constituents who suffer from inequities based on challenges like language barriers, transportation, and more.
According to U.S. Census data, roughly 56% of the county identifies as white, nearly 31% of Pinal County residents identify as Hispanic and roughly 5.4% Black.
Arizona's Family reached out to a spokesperson for Pinal County on Thursday and was told Dr. Spears could not give an official comment at this point.