By Callan Tansill-Suddath
A bill that would require the Maryland Department of Health to create and implement a two-year plan for COVID-19 recovery by June 1, among other measures, is nearing passage in the Maryland General Assembly.
With a price tag of at least $152.5 million in federal funds, the COVID-19 Testing, Contact Tracing, and Vaccination Act of 2021 (SB 741) offers a multifaceted approach to COVID-19 recovery through the next two years.
The bill passed unanimously in the state Senate two weeks ago and must get through two House committees before hitting the House floor. A companion bill was sponsored in the House by Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s).
Central to the measure is a framework that would require the state health department to collaborate with local health departments to organize efforts to “monitor, prevent, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” according to an analysis of the bill.
Included in the guidelines the bill lays out for state and local health departments are requirements to set precise targets for the number of COVID-19 tests to administer each month, creating methods for addressing responses that have fallen short, and a requirement to bill health insurance, when applicable, for all COVID-19 tests.
But insurance companies can abstain from covering the cost of tests administered for preemptive workplace safety or other similar reasons; if passed, this bill would remove that caveat.
Residents without health insurance can access free COVID-19 tests at any state-run or county-run testing site, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
Pharmacies and local health departments will also be required to look for ways to abate barriers to accessible, at-home COVID-19 tests and to encourage more pharmacies and health care practitioners to offer testing services.
The bill also prioritizes the assessment and improvement of contact tracing in each individual jurisdiction, including a method for departments of health to self-monitor how well contact tracing is working.
Through the proposed Maryland Public Health Jobs Corps, local health departments would recruit unemployed or displaced workers to serve in different roles that aid in the response to the coronavirus.
When their duties are complete, the workers would transition to more permanent roles that target “Post-pandemic population health needs of underserved communities and vulnerable populations,” the bill says.
Contact tracing, for example, is a role even those with little or no medical experience can perform.
“The idea is to recruit people who are available because of unemployment… Tracing is basically calling people on the phone, asking them questions, writing down the answers, and that’s very much what waiters and waitresses do. There are all these laid-off waiters and waitresses, so it seems like a perfect match of opportunity and need,” Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), the bill’s sponsor, told Capital News Service.
The Maryland Health Department must award grants totaling $15 million to local jurisdictions to fund vaccination efforts during the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years; additional funding can be requested if the initial amount proves insufficient.
The state health department must provide grants of up to $9 million and $36 million to cover testing services for assisted living facilities and home health agencies in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, respectively.
The health department must also provide grants of up to $5.5 million and $22 million the next year to cover testing services in nursing homes in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Funding for these allocations comes from the money Maryland received from President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package passed March 11.
In return, home health agencies, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes must create and implement COVID-19 testing plans that ensure every staff member and resident is regularly tested for the virus.
Institutes of higher education must create similar testing policies, including a requirement of students to provide valid test results before attending class in-person.
Finally, the bill proposes the formation of the Maryland Public Health Infrastructure Modernization Workgroup, which will be composed of two state senators, two state delegates, one representative of the Department of Budget and Management, and representatives from both local and state health departments, as well as miscellaneous subject experts and stakeholders.
The group will determine what needs to be done to improve the state’s public health services and offer suggestions for what can be done to prepare for future public health emergencies; the health department must submit a report of these findings to the General Assembly by Dec. 1.
Among the concerns going forward are uncertainty about how long vaccines provide protection, the possible need for booster shots down the line, and new COVID-19 variants, Acting Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader said during a Senate Vaccine Oversight Work Group Committee meeting last week.
“The thrust of the bill is essentially for the state for this year and next year to have a plan that is visible, that is accessible that is understandable … about how we’re going to do the testing, tracing and vaccinations that we need to do,” Rosapepe said during the bill’s hearing in the House Tuesday.