The informal advisory group appointed by Gov. Mike Parson heard a wish list from a series of state agency and organization leaders about how to spend CARES Act funding coming into the state.
State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick says Missouri has about $1.5 billion to work with after buying personal protective equipment for state health and frontline workers. As CARES Act money — and mandatory guidelines — come from the federal government, the team will recommend spending priorities to the governor.
Fitzpatrick says the panel is “still in information-gathering mode.’
The team met for more than four hours at the Capitol and remotely on Thursday. In the first hour, Missouri DHSS Director Randall Williams briefed the panel on the state’s approach to testing and how it could be paid for. Williams explained a three-pronged approach to add to current PCR (nasal swab sampling) infection tests given to individuals who ask for it.
- “Boxed-in” approach:
Williams says there will be outbreaks and each county needs to be ready to address those flare-ups by testing everyone involved.”We go in and test all the staff, all the residents because we know when this gets into congregated facilities, whether it be prisons or cruise ships or nursing homes or cruise ships, this tends to be very infectious,” Williams said. He said Medicare and Medicaid will pay for this testing and he wants health care facilities to seek this insurance rather than the state pay for it. State Budget Director Dan Haug says the state will reimburse large facilities and agencies through $135 million from coronavirus relief funds recently allocated for testing.
- Community sampling:
Williams says communities are asking DHSS to come in to do “snapshot” or random sampling to extrapolate from a small number what a larger number of cases might be. The department sampled 12 counties three weeks ago and found nine COVID-19 cases out of 3,000 tested. They are now testing in Buchanan and Andrew County. St. Louis County will be testing 5,000 people to be paid for locally. Other locations to be tested.
- Sentinel testing:
The health department picks areas of high morbidity and mortality or long-term care facilities to do periodic testing. Williams says there is a plan to put these in place around the state, in order to predict outbreaks before large-scale hospitalizations.
Versailles Republican, Rep. David Wood took issue with local health departments having to foot the bill for testing services, relying on local general CARES funding to the county to be allocated to them.
“Basically you have no plans of sending money down, even though they are doing your work and they are funded through you, you’re having them compete for the dollars that are sent to the county? I’ve made that point in budget committee numbers of times that if Health and Senior Services is receiving additional funds from COVID money, whatever pot it’s coming from and they are not passing on to the people doing the work, that to me is … (mumbled expletive).”
Unemployment, tourism, job training needs
Chris Slinkard, Director at Missouri Division of Employment Security discussed the health of the state Unemployment Trust Fund.
“The trust fund at the beginning of this year was at almost $1.1 billion, the largest in state history,” he told the panel. “On May 18, 2020, the UI Trust Fund balance was $858 million; the majority what was given out has come from the U.S. CARES Act.”
Missouri Chamber of Commerce President Dan Mehan also spoke to the group, seeking more attention for the state’s apprenticeship and internship program for workers who may not get their jobs back.
“If you look at where we would prioritize, it’s about the testing and it’s about the people. It’s about the apprenticeship and internship approach that when people talk infrastructure, the term shovel-ready got kind of a bad connotation, we have shovels in the ground in these apprenticeship programs and they are working,” Mehan said.
Mehan also said that businesses opening up need some help by a temporary law.
“We sent a letter to the governor two days ago asking for a special session to consider lawsuit protection. There are a lot of employers out there that are fearful or reopening their doors for fears being sued for whatever possible reason even though they try to open responsibly, safely, with PPE and try to follow CDC guidelines, guidelines of the state and we’d just like to have some sort of temporary — not global — but temporary immunity from lawsuits that could occur from this. We’ve seen hundreds crop up around the country. The fear of lawsuits is going to hinder our recovery in a big way,” Mehan said.
Stephen Foutes, Director for the Missouri Division of Tourism reported losses compared to the normal brought in by sightseers and visitors.
“Approximately $2.16 billion in tourism-related spending has been lost from February 29 through May 9 of this year as compared to roughly the same time last year, ” Foutes said.
“Since early March both the tourism economy and the industry employment have plummeted,” he added.
One-third of the tourism industry in Missouri has filed for unemployment.
Zora Mulligan released information from a public and private college and university survey on how higher education institutions are trying to cope with budget cuts and the demands of creating online learning.
“If I have one big takeaway from this survey is that institutions worked really hard, as did students, to figure out ways to make this work this spring semester. But if this is to be a longer-term strategy, we’ve got a lot of additional investment that we’re going to need to make in terms of professional development, advising, infrastructure, student capacity, and then the larger broadband system in which this operates,” Mulligan summarized.
Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Jeff Falter agreed with Mulligan that broadband capacity across the state is a major problem.
“Districts report an estimated 23 percent of students are without internet access — or one out of every five students,” he told the panel.