Galveston County will continue funding a mass public COVID-19 testing program through at least the end of February, even as the county’s allotment of pandemic relief money runs dry and other sources of funding are unclear.
In making the decision, county commissioners also vowed to reform how the Galveston County Health District is funded by finding ways to shift some of the costs of public health services to cities.
The decision temporarily puts to rest a question about the immediate future of the county’s popular COVID testing program.
The county in June signed a contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch to offer free COVID testing to county residents at three different sites.
Under the contract, the program is set to be in place until the end of 2021, but federal funding for the program already has been spent.
Commissioners during a workshop meeting made clear they wanted to continue the program with local money and review it again in February.
“It’s kind of our responsibility to make sure it runs smoothly,” Commissioner Joe Giusti said. “As far as the testing goes, it needs to happen. If somebody feels the need to get a test, they should be able to go get a test.”
COVID testing and contact tracing are among the most effective ways to reduce the spread of the virus in communities, according to health officials.
Technically, the county is paying for tests of uninsured people only. People with insurance already are covered for testing.
The program has proved popular and widely used, in part because the medical branch’s tests provide results within 48 hours. Officials believe the program has contributed to Galveston County being one of the most-tested counties per capita in Texas.
At least 220,930 COVID-19 tests have been administered in Galveston County, according to the health district. The equivalent of 65 percent of the county population has been tested for COVID-19.
It’s unclear what COVID testing in Galveston County would look like without the county testing program. Health care providers aren’t required to provide free coronavirus tests to uninsured Americans, but the federal government has set up a provider relief fund to help cover the cost of such tests.
The popularity has come at a cost.
County officials last month said they expected the testing program to cost $2.5 million. Of that, the county will have to spend $1.5 million of its general fund to pay for the program. The rest was covered by federal COVID relief money, which has been spent.
The county had hoped local cities would contribute some of their own federal COVID aid to keep the program going, but Galveston, La Marque and Texas City haven’t paid into the program. The county had hoped to receive more than $695,000 from those cities to cover the costs of uninsured residents who had used the testing program.
Officials in those cities have said they were focused on covering their own COVID-related expenses before paying into the county program.
More recently, some cities have told the county they’ve spent their entire federal allocation and have nothing to give.
That’s part of the reason County Judge Mark Henry said the county should revisit interlocal agreements defining how the health district is funded. The agreements require the county to contribute millions of dollars a year to the district, but they don’t require any funding from the county’s 13 incorporated cities, officials said.
“We have to have a different-looking health district when this is over with,” Henry said.
County officials emphasized after the meeting that any discussion about changing funding to the health district would happen only after the COVID pandemic had ended.