The St. Louis County Council approved $1.5 million in COVID-19 response funding to protect first responders, pay for testing costs for the uninsured and for medical supplies, at the Tuesday, March 24 council meeting.
“This emergency appropriation is critical, as the risks posed to the community by COVID-19 are too significant to wait for other funding sources,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page wrote in a March 20 letter to the council.
Page requested $1 million to help the county’s public health department respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes $430,000 for testing supplies and protective equipment for healthcare workers. The request also includes $200,000 for the Regional Health Commission to administer COVID-19 testing for uninsured residents, and $50,000 for the United Way’s 211 24/7 call center. The remaining amount will go towards additional staff to conduct medical screenings, contact tracing, return phone calls and contact monitoring, according to a letter from the health department.
Page also requested $500,000 from the St. Louis County Emergency Fund for the police department for personal protective equipment.
In an interview with TheSt. Louis American, Page said that the county has been working on its pandemic response for two months.
“I put together a technical advisory committee to guide me through this crisis,” Page said.
The committee includes health experts, lawyers and a racial-equity consultant, among others. The county has been sharing the advice developed through this team with surrounding counties, in order to best coordinate regional efforts, Page said.
The dramatic increase in the city’s and county’s COVID-19 cases over the March 21-22 weekend only confirmed that leaders made the right decision in ordering all residents to “stay at home” — orders that went into effect on March 23, he said.
As of Tuesday, March 24, the county had 97 positive cases. When Page announced the Stay at Home order on March 21, there were only 17 cases. However, there are likely more, Page stated in a dire letter to the council.
“Because there is a national shortage of tests, we believe this number likely does not reflect the total number of people with the virus,” he stated in the March 24 letter.
Page also told TheAmerican that the county health officials have no way of knowing how many COVID-19 tests are being conducted, now with the private labs also testing individuals. However, Page said he believes that testing has increased, though not as much as they need due to the lack of medical supplies nationally.
When asked if the lack of testing information poses a challenge for his racial-equity consultants to determine whether or not testing is equitable throughout the county, Page said that it is a question best posed to public-health expert Jason Purnell, who is advising him on racial equity. The American is awaiting a response from Purnell.
Aside from health challenges, COVID-19 poses great economic challenges, Page wrote in a March 20 letter to the County Council.
“Workers and businesses are hurting — both from the virus and from the public health measures that were necessary to limit the virus’s spread as much as possible,” Page stated. “There will be a devastating impact on many workers who will lose their jobs and businesses that will be forced to close. Our entire economy may very well be remade before our eyes. That financial devastation will first hit our residents, and then it will hit their government.”
In recent decades, the county has never faced an economic downturn and responded to an emergency at the same time, Page stated. Revenue will decrease because low sales taxes are coming in, and the casinos have closed. Other revenues will also be slow, related to the slow housing market. And at the same time, the county will need “significant emergency expenditures,” he stated.
To date, the county has spent about $2 million in COVID-19 response costs, and Page said he expects much more in the coming weeks. Last week, he directed all departments to stop all spending, unless it is critical to the pandemic response or protecting the community.
“We will overcome these challenges only by working together,” Page stated in the letter. “I look forward to working with each of you as we together lead St. Louis County through this crisis.”
If county residents believe they need to be tested, they should first call one of these numbers:
North County: 314-653-5000
Mid County: 314-747-3000
West County: 314-251-0500
South County: 314-966-9666.