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Baltimore to use $80M in federal recovery money to battle COVID with vaccines, testing, contact tracing and telehealth

Baltimore officials announced they will direct $80 million in American Rescue Plan funding to the city’s health department for the fight against the coronavirus — the city’s first allocation from the more than $640 million it received from the federal recovery package.

The money, which will be spent over the course of four years, will help fund lab tests for COVID as well as at-home testing kits that health officials hope to distribute in areas of Baltimore where residents have more difficulty getting to a coronavirus testing site.

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ARP money also will be spent to build a better telehealth infrastructure for the city’s health department, allowing patients to consult with health care providers, book appointments online and receive other services. Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said the department hopes to have the strengthened service online by the end of 2022.

A portion of the $80 million will be used to buy and store personal protective equipment needed to protect city staff from the virus. The funding also will support 100 contact tracers, making positions permanent for some of the existing tracing staff and allowing health department employees who were temporarily assisting with contact tracing efforts to return to their usual jobs, Dzirasa said.

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Another portion of the money will be used to strengthen the city’s mobile vaccination team, Dzirasa said, as well as to train staff about how to discuss vaccines with parents or guardians of children ages 5 to 11 once vaccines are approved for that age group.

“Perhaps no city agency has felt its affects more acutely than the health department,” Dzirasa said of the virus.

Baltimore officials including Dzirasa and Mayor Brandon Scott made the announcement of the allocation Wednesday at Coppin State University, where one of the city’s free vaccination clinics is located. Officials are expected to roll out future allocations on a weekly basis, and the application process for city nonprofits to receive some of the funding will remain open until the end of the year.

Baltimore was awarded $641 million earlier this year from the American Rescue Plan, a federal stimulus program passed in March meant to assist communities across the country with the recovery from the coronavirus. The potential uses for the funding are broader than previous recovery programs created during the pandemic, and city officials have spoken about trying to use the money on transformative projects.

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Baltimore has created a 10-person Office of Recovery Programs to analyze applications for the funding, which are coming from city agencies as well as nonprofits. Proposals must be for at least $250,000. Staff members judge proposals against a rubric that includes the public good they will generate, risk factors, performance measures and the project’s impact on equity. Equity is weighted most heavily.

Shamiah Kerney, head of the Office of Recovery Programs, said Wednesday that several measures will be used to track the performance of the funding for the health department as it relates to equity, including COVID test positivity by ZIP code.

Scott said a yet to be disclosed portion of the money will be spent on violence prevention efforts within the city. Baltimore is one of more than a dozen cities and counties from across the country who have signed on to participate in a collaborative effort led by President Joe Biden to reduce gun violence that will use ARP funds.

Budget officials said earlier this month that $141 million of ARP money has been set aside to help balance the city’s upcoming budgets, which are expected to incur millions of dollars in coronavirus-related expenses.

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