COVID-19 testing in Galveston County has been a point of pride almost from the start because at one point the county had one of the highest rates of testing in the state, if not the country.
For months, Galveston County residents have been able to call a hotline at the University of Texas Medical Branch and schedule a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether they had health insurance to cover the cost.
The model program is considered to be a big part of why Galveston County was able to keep the COVID-19 rate relatively at bay for so long.
That’s why when the Galveston County Health District in May ended a free public testing program it had run during the early months of the pandemic, county officials scrambled for a way to keep the program going and contracted with the University of Texas Medical Branch to do just that.
The program is paid for through the county’s allocation of federal CARES Act money and has helped deliver more than 177,000 tests to county residents. That’s the equivalent of half the county’s population, although some people were tested more than once, according to data.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry asked cities in June to contribute 18 percent of their CARES Act funding to the program, on the assumption the cities would not have enough COVID costs to actually spend all their CARES money — a notion supported by the Texas Department of Emergency Management, which, according to Henry, said that if cities didn’t hit their spending limits, it would be no problem to move city money to the county.
But that changed when the federal government changed the rules, giving cities more options for how they can spend their CARES Act money, therefore leaving less unspent and available money for the county kitty.
“These assurances were made repeatedly,” Henry said. “The decision they made to reverse all that last month was something they told me cannot happen, will not happen, take it to the bank. We did this with a lot of assurances that it wouldn’t turn into vapor when it came time to get down to it.”
Some cities bought in right away — Friendswood, Hitchcock, Kemah, Clear Lake Shores, Tiki Island and Jamaica Beach have put up about $150,000. The county expects to receive another $541,791 from Dickinson, Santa Fe and League City.
Galveston, La Marque, Texas City and Bayou Vista, on the other hand, weren’t quite on board. Galveston and La Marque — probably the most proactive cities in the county in regard to COVID response — have said they’re waiting to cover all of their own COVID-related expenses before pitching in to county efforts. And that makes sense.
But with coronavirus cases on the rise in the county, the program now finds itself more than $1.5 million over budget, leaving the county with an expensive program, ongoing costs, no promise of more money coming in and a rule change that makes it less likely that more money will come in. County officials are unsure whether the programwill continue into the new year.
Ultimately, Henry argues the county testing program is something that should be supported by every local government. We agree — work it out.
• Margaret Battistelli Gardner