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Baltimore to put $80 million of ARPA funds toward health department efforts

Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Mayor Brandon Scott speaks at a Wednesday news conference, where he announced $80 million in ARPA funding for the health department.

Baltimore will put $80 million in American Rescue Plan Act money toward health department efforts centering on COVID-19 prevention and outreach to vulnerable communities, Mayor Brandon Scott said Wednesday.

His announcement marks the first allocation of the $641 million ARPA stimulus toward special projects. The Democrat already has set aside around $110 million to balance future budgets, should city revenues such as parking fees continue to be reduced by the pandemic. The health department funding represents 12.4% of the total stimulus.

“The need in Baltimore was great even before COVID 19 showed up on our doorsteps, and we understand that that need has only grown dramatically,” Scott said at a news conference. “I sincerely believe in the bottom of my heart that if we make investments in the right way, we can make a deep and genuine impact.”

Of the money reserved for the health department, aAbout $18.8 million reserved for the health department will go toward contact tracing efforts, which includes the hiring of 120 contact tracers and supervisors.

About $13.28 million will go toward vaccination efforts, including a new Immunization Office to coordinate a mobile vaccination team of 24 health department staffers that will aim to reach all neighborhoods, especially those with vaccine hesitant and vulnerable residents.

Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said many employees in her department have done both COVID-related work such as testing and contract tracing on top of their primary job throughout the pandemic.

“The ARPA funding will support the health department's operations in many ways, and importantly, that will allow members of our team to return to their pre-pandemic responsibilities full time,” she said.

Scott said about $15.92 million will help provide 20,000 fresh meals and 1,200 grocery boxes per month, as well as food delivery service for seniors and homebound residents.

About $12.24 million will go toward the purchase of tens of thousands of at-home, laboratory and rapid COVID-19 tests, as well as dedicated testing staff. Another $10 million will go toward the acquisition, management and storage of PPE.

About $6.16 million toward outreach, telehealth infrastructure for Baltimore City health care clinics and replace what Scott described as “much outdated systems.”

“Meeting our residents where they are requires the health department to shift to more telehealth options,” Dzirasa said. “Our current system doesn't have a patient portal for patients to request appointments, their medical records, new test results or communicate with health department clinicians online.”

Another $1.28 million will go toward vulnerable communities, including the hiring of social work staffers who will be tasked with preventing violence towards and abuse of seniors.

The Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs, led by Shamiah Kerney, has overseen the ARPA funding process. She said the office and health department worked together to develop a series of key performance indicators for each funded initiative.

“For example, for testing and vaccinations, we're looking at the percentage of test positivity by zip code, race, sex and age, the number of clients served at mobile clinics and the percentage of the population vaccinated by age and eligibility across the city,” she said. “We're also tracking the effectiveness of our contact tracers, how quickly our PPE supply is used, as well as a number of meals and food boxes distributed to our senior population.”

By law, Baltimore must commit all of the $641 million to projects by 2025.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.