In a 3/2 vote on this past Wednesday, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors voted to reject a $3.4 million federal grant for improving vaccine equity. Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh (District 1), led the charge to deny the funding, questioning whether Pinal County had a need for a “vaccine equity coordinator”, which the grant mandated be established. The grant also funded vaccination efforts like mobile vaccine clinics. County Public Health Services District employees were stunned by the move with the director, Dr. Tascha Spears, saying “I just simply would like to note that our public health team is deeply disappointed”.
According to The Arizona Republic, the grant would have come from federal COVID-19 relief funds provided to the state health department. County health services employees commented that the $3.4 million would have funded efforts (over three years) to educate underserved populations about the COVID-19 vaccine and help provide vaccines in underserved communities.
During the hearing this past Wednesday, Cavanaugh asked Spears whether or not her office sought the grant or did they see the grant available and look for a problem? He went on to say that “The questions I’m getting from my constituents are, you know, we have Walgreens, Walmart, (uh, no…don’t believe there is a Walmart in your district Kevin), everybody knows that there are free vaccines”. Dr. Spears responded that Pinal County has many rural areas where folks are farther away from bigger chains like Walmart. Of course, Cavanaugh was not however, swayed by this logic, nor did he obviously care about how the homeless or disabled might access these commercial providers.
Although appearing surprised by Cavanaugh’s move in the hearing, supervisors Jeff McClure and Jeff Serdy voted with him to reject the funding. The chairman of the Board, Steve Miller and vice chair Mike Goodman voted against the rejection.
“It made no sense to turn this down” was the response former Arizona state health director Will Humble (now executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association), provided when asked about the Board’s action. As both Spears and Humble pointed out, the county qualified for the grant due to its social vulnerability index which included factors such as “the proportion of people with disabilities, unemployment rates and the number of single parent households”.
Cavanaugh though, was set on making this about disdain for the federal government saying, “The federal government, the best job they do, is wasting money”. He went on to say that, “this $3.4 million dollar grant would have provided one public health official here in Pinal County, a nurse. And the rest largely would have largely gone to some as yet unknown unnamed contractor”.
Well, let’s hope Kevin, that the the contractor is yet unknown and unnamed because I would expect government procurement rules would have been followed had the grant been accepted. Per A.R.S. 41-2533, that contracts must be decided via competitive sealed bidding (those under $100,000 in value have exceptions). Per A.R.S. 41-2561, Bid specifications are required to “promote overall economy for the purposes intended and encourage competition in satisfying this state’s needs and shall not be unduly restrictive”. Furthermore, under the competitive sealed bidding procedures, a state governmental unit must award a contract to the “lowest responsible and responsive bidder whose bid conforms in all material respects to the requirements and evaluation criteria” set forth in the invitation for bids. There are similar rules in federal procurement.
As a county supervisor, Cavanaugh should be very familiar with state procurement rules and therefor know it is disingenuous to make it sound like there would be no accountability for the grant funding if the Board had accepted it. There would of course be, unless Cavanaugh and his buddies didn’t properly fulfill their duties.
Speaking of fulfilling their duties, what were Supervisors Jeff McClure and Jeff Serdy thinking in voting with Cavanaugh to reject the $3.4 million? In an email afterwards, Serdy told AZFamily.com that he voted to reject the funding “in order to retain local control.” He went on to write “I’m not too concerned that our citizens don’t have access to the vaccine if they want it because it is now widely available for free”. McClure did not respond to the Arizona’s Family request for comment, nor did he respond to an email I sent him on the matter.
I should mention here, that I served on a school board with Jeff McClure for eight years and although there was much we didn’t agree on, I thought he was concerned about doing the right thing for our students and staff. His decision to reject this funding to improve Pinal County’s vaccination rate however, is definitely not doing the right thing for the people of Pinal County, which lags the state, at 56.3% and national at 61.5%, averages for vaccination with only 48.1% of those 12 and older fully vaccinated as of the Board’s vote.
And, according to former state health director Dr. Cara Christ, some of the federal vaccine dollars could go toward encouraging the continuance of routine school vaccinations that declined during the pandemic. “While we’re using that funding to ensure we are vaccinating in an equitable manner, we can use that funding to improve health equity in other arenas as well”, Christ told The Arizona Republic in July.
I don’t for a second believe Supervisors Cavanaugh, McClure and Serdy rejected the $3.4 million because it was the right thing to do for the people of Pinal County. Rather, I believe it was a purely political decision meant to appeal to their voting base. After all, when booster shots are authorized, or children under the age of 12 are approved to receive the vaccine, where will the money come from to help implement those additional protections?
Again, Pinal County Health Services District Director Dr. Tascha Spears said,
In Pinal County there are some communities who are underserved, who don’t have access to COVID-19 vaccines. So this is specifically to facilitate that, so that communities everywhere truly do have a choice about whether they would like to receive the vaccine or not.
That’s the thing see. If you don’t know what your choices are, or you can’t access the choice you’ve made, you have no choice at all.