South Hadley Select Board approves $95K for virus testing, contact tracing

  • South Hadley Town Administrator Lisa Wong GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2022

SOUTH HADLEY — Following an appeal from the town administrator, South Hadley’s Select Board has approved spending $95,000 in federal COVID-19 funds for testing and contact tracing for town students and employees.

At the Select Board’s meeting on Jan. 4, Town Administrator Lisa Wong proposed spending $60,000 on testing kits and another $35,000 on contact tracing during the remainder of the fiscal year. That money would come from American Rescue Plan Act funds, also known as ARPA.

Wong made the request, which also came from the Board of Health and school department, as coronavirus infections soar to record highs across the region. The surge in cases, driven by the omicron variant of the virus, has threatened the functioning of municipal services in communities across the country and Wong said she wanted to be prepared.

“This is going to be for public works, public safety, critical town offices, school department, so we can actually keep our staff healthy, minimize infection and just continue to try to operate,” Wong said.

During the meeting, Wong said that she estimates the town may incur pandemic-related costs of anywhere between $400,000 and $1 million by the end of 2024. She said those figures may be a “wild guess” but that they point to the need for the town to have some minimum funding set aside for coronavirus costs.

In an email to the Gazette on Jan. 6, Wong said there had been some cases among town staff, as well as those affected by potential exposures. Nevertheless, the town has been able to keep operations going, Wong said, noting that the Senior Center had closed “out of an abundance of caution” and reopened Jan. 10.

“We are not sure how Omicron will affect us but since it is highly contagious, having rapid tests readily available will help us keep operations going,” Wong wrote. “Public safety and public works will be prioritized and this will also assist many of our smaller departments that have three or less staff that provide important services.”

Other funding sources for testing and contact tracing efforts have largely dried up, Wong noted Tuesday. Money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, is no longer available to communities. Neither are funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Wong said.

The state also has stopped providing resources that it was previously giving municipalities, such as contact tracing, despite a mandate that municipalities conduct that tracing for children in schools and in critical-care facilities, Wong said.

On the local level, the town’s contact tracer, the public health nurse, retired. And rapid tests that can be taken at home mean that anyone who is working as a contact tracer must track down the results of those tests.

Select Board members criticized the state for stepping back on support for limiting cases of COVID-19. Board member Sarah Etelman, for example, said the municipality is going to have a lot more work on its hands after the state stopped helping with key functions like contact tracing.

“I wish the state government would do their job … It’s bananas and the state government has decided COVID is over,” Andrea Miles, a board member, said. “And we have four times as many cases as we had last year. So we are left holding the purse on this one.”

Gov. Charlie Baker has announced contracts with test manufacturers that will allow municipalities to buy rapid test kits at state-negotiated prices. On Thursday, The Recorder reported that Montague had approved similar spending on test kits for town employees, and that Whately and other Franklin County municipalities had discussed doing so, too.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.