Lawmakers accept $96.25M grant to expand virus testing, contact tracing

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The Legislative Interim Finance Committee on Monday voted to accept two federal grants totaling $96.25 million to pay for the state and local governments to greatly expand testing for the COVID-19 virus and develop effective contact tracing to stem any potential resurgence of the virus in the state.

Caleb Cage, who is heading Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID Response team, and Julia Peek of the Public and Behavioral Health Division said the grants will enhance testing for the disease, expand detection of the disease and hopefully make it possible to quickly find and warn people exposed to some one who has it.

A large chunk of that money, $30 million “off the top,” will go to expand the capability of Nevada’s two public test laboratories.

She said the state is working on hiring people to train as contact tracer investigators to track down people who may have come in contact with an infected person. She said there are digital platforms that can help trace contacts. The tracing training will be free.

Cage said contact tracing depends on an individual’s willingness to participate “and give truthful answers.”

Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus, R-Wellington, questioned the more than $66 million in the budget for contact tracing pointing out that’s $33 for every Nevadan.

“That seems to me an excessive amount,” said Titus, a medical doctor.

But IFC Chair Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said the tracing isn’t just for Nevadans but the numerous tourists who come to the state and may become exposed or bring the infection with them.

Peek pointed out that the testing and tracing program is for the next 30 months. She said the directive is to test a minimum of 2 percent of Nevada’s population every month and to publish the data in real time so everyone knows the status of the state. The vote to accept the money was not unanimous.

After Douglas County Republican Jim Wheeler raised concerns about the privacy of all the data the state would be collecting about Nevadans and who might have access to it, he and Carson City’s Al Kramer voted no.

Fully 10 of the 17 work programs on Monday’s agenda were for the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation’s new phone system. Since the governor shutdown most businesses to slow the spread of the virus, well over 400,000 Nevadans have applied for unemployment benefits, completely swamping the department’s antiquated phone system. Director Heather Korbulic said the old system is on the verge of collapsing and unable to handle the volume of calls

The new cloud based system, she said, is scalable to whatever size the Employment Security Division needs and includes many more modern features including the ability for workers to do so from home.

Altogether, those 10 work programs add up to $2,589,750.

IFC also approved an $8.1 million contract with the Division of Welfare and Supportive Services to provide low income energy assistance to people already on the Low Income Energy Assistance program. Director Steve Fischer said some 40 percent of that money will make retroactive payments to those people.

IFC is scheduled to meet again June 12 to consider more funding programs to deal with the pandemic.


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