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State's plans for $1 billion in COVID relief money don't include vaccinations or testing


The state of South Dakota wants to spend part of its $1 billion federal coronavirus relief package on health care — but the proposed projects aren't directly aimed at ending the pandemic.

Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act in March. It includes money for nine programs directly related to COVID-19 vaccination, prevention and preparedness, according to documents prepared for the Legislature.

Some other states are using that funding for COVID-19 initiatives, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. For example, Kentucky is using funding to expand testing in schools while Virginia is using it for COVID-19 outreach in rural communities. New Mexico is paying for incentives and a lottery.

The South Dakota Department of Health "has federal funding available to support vaccination efforts in the state and will not be requesting ARPA funds to support COVID vaccination," according to spokesman Daniel Bucheli. Existing funds "will be used to educate and inform the public on the benefit of COVID-19 vaccines to fight this pandemic — one of just many mitigation tools the public can use to protect themselves."

State Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican and chairman of the Legislature's COVID Relief Liaison Committee, said South Dakota has already taken advantage of other federal funds to fight the virus.

"Getting tested for COVID is not an issue in South Dakota. Getting people to get tested might be the issue, but not availability," he said. "The opportunity is funded or exists. There is no reason to create more opportunities for testing. Everybody that wants to get tested can get tested."

The federal legislation outlines how money can be spent, while the South Dakota Legislature will decide how it will be spent.

Examples of how the federal legislation allows states to address the pandemic include:

  • Establishing and expanding community testing and vaccination centers, particularly in underserved areas.
  • Deploying mobile vaccination units.
  • Communicating with the public on how to receive a vaccine.
  • Transporting people to vaccination facilities.
  • Detecting and mitigating the virus among the homeless population and in prisons, jails and other facilities.
  • Improving laboratory preparedness.
  • Improving testing in schools.
South Dakota Legislature
Federal funding available to the South Dakota Department of Health from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Medical experts say increasing the COVID-19 vaccination rate is the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus and prevent infections, especially ones that lead to hospitalizations and death. Monitoring and testing are also key.

Sixty percent of South Dakotans 12 and older have completed their vaccine series while 71% have received at least one dose. Just over 8,000 children under the age of 12 — who recently became eligible for the vaccine — have received a dose.

COVID-19 cases have been on the rise this month in South Dakota, and more than 400 South Dakotans have died with COVID-19 since ARPA was signed into law on March 11.

South Dakota citizens submitted public comment asking for funds to be used for vaccine incentives. Others want to see ventilation improvements at schools — which helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 — and financial aid for COVID long haulers, who are left with chronic health conditions after contracting the virus.

Lawmakers will consider funding proposals this winter.

State priorities

A legislative committee recently met to hear proposals for spending the state's $975.5 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. The proposals earmark a majority of the money for water projects.

The Departments of Health and Social Services pitched projects that address longstanding health care struggles in South Dakota, as well as issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

DOH Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon said South Dakota's ambulance services are struggling. Most are run by volunteers and are having trouble finding the next generation of volunteer medics.

She wants to use ARPA funds to:

  • Buy $12 million worth of health monitors/defibrillators.
  • Provide $8 million for studies and grants.
  • Spend $1.8 million to improve telehealth communication between medics and hospital staff.

Secretary Laurie Gill said the Department of Social Services wants to use $15 million to build or expand regional mental health facilities.
"Individuals in mental health crisis are often involuntarily committed to an inpatient psychiatric hospital when they could have been served in a less restrictive setting," Gill said.

She said the only option in some rural areas is for sheriff's offices to put people in jail or drive them long distances to a mental health facility.

The regional facilities could provide stabilization, inpatient care and transitional housing services, Gill said.

The legislative committee also heard from representatives of AARP, which focuses on issues impacting people over the age of 50, and the South Dakota Health Care Association, which represents long-term care providers.

Both organizations want ARPA funds for staffing at long-term care organizations, including those that provide in-home care.

Eric Nelson of AARP said the pandemic has been tough on long-term care.

"Frankly, it led to unprecedented new costs and pushed long-term care centers toward insolvency," he said.

Some of the funding should go to raising wages and increasing training opportunities to attract and retain caregivers, Nelson said.

Nelson wants funding to address pandemic health disparities for people of color and other disadvantaged groups. He also wants to fund modern and affordable housing so people can age at home.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.