Submitted by Larry Seaquist for Pierce County Executive Campaign.
WE’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY. By masking and distancing we brought infection rates steadily down in August. Then something happened. The virus took over and our pandemic numbers started climbing shortly after Labor Day, are now running more than 2 ½ times above the target. We may soon be ordered into hard lockdown again — full school shutdowns, more business failures, and many more people out of work. Why the turnaround? One clue: only $25m of the $67million of CARES Act money intended for the direct attack on the virus has been spent. It wasn’t just not enough masking. Follow the money and it looks like the county failed to meet this maximum threat with a maximum effort. Let’s follow the money.
A GOOD START. Back on May 1st, with fewer than 1,500 total confirmed Covid-19 cases and daily infection rates on the decline, Pierce County Council deployed $158 million of new money from the Federal CARES Act. Coming from a special fund intended specifically to help local governments pay the additional costs of the coronavirus public health emergency, the CARES Act funding seemed exactly what we needed to finish the job. At first, things looked good. By June 1st, a month later, infection rates had dropped to 12 a day. Masking, spacing markers on store floors, and hand sanitizer seemed to be working. Schools were planning to put students back in classrooms, some businesses were reopening. It didn’t last.
AN OPPORTUNITY MISMANAGED: Looking back through the county’s own reports, we see that the Council’s order was not followed by action. The Federal money stayed on the shelf. Even now, five months later, actual expenditure of the CARES Relief Fund monies have been shockingly low. With only three months before the Feds take back anything not spent, only $39.2 million, 29%, has been put to work. We see the numbers but hear no explanations. Doubtless there are bureaucratic roadblocks– they need to be fixed. Looking around the Pierce County weekly report there are more questions.
- Why has only $3.4m — only 14%! — of the $25 million earmarked for testing been spent? Why hasn’t this been used to build the testing infrastructure for the much larger testing program we’re going to need for the long haul?
- Why has only $205,000 — only 4%! — been spent on childcare help when child care is the number one problem faced by most of our working families with kids?
- Why has only $1.74m — 15%! — been spent on housing stability and homelessness when we have a huge homelessness and housing crisis and dozens of fully staffed community agencies ready to help?
- Why has only $10K– 2%! — been spent on domestic and family violence protection when we know this is a large and growing problem?
- And why has less than $1m — 8%!– been spent of the $10.2m allocated to helping businesses reopen?
WE NEED A COMPLETE RESET RIGHT NOW
We’re running out of time. The Feds want all this money spent by the last day in December or they take it back. And today one of our own leading specialists, Dr. Joshua Schiffer of Fred Hutch, reminds in today’s New York Times that we could be “dangerously close to a tipping point” when speed and scale matter. If we don’t rapidly reduce the county’s infection rates we’ll be back at the bottom of the hole with even more businesses bankrupt and more families hungry and homeless. Here are three immediate steps we need to see from the County Executive:
1—TAKE CHARGE AND RESET THE STRATEGY. There is still time to turn this around, still time to take advantage of every Federal penny. We need a quick, county-wide reset on the CARES Act spending plan so that money is used to maximum effect. We must also think long term: What level of control must we sustain if we are to stop the flip-flops, fully reopen schools, and keep them open? How will we restart businesses and encourage new ones? And above all, how do we get everyone now unemployed and underemployed back to meaningful work in a high skills, high competition global economy that is being profoundly reshaped by the pandemic?
2—THROW EVERYTHING INTO GETTING THERE. Pierce County has allocated a $23 million contingency reserve. It is past time for holding contingency reserves – the contingency is now. It is way past time for the Executive to solve the thicket of bureaucratic process problems which seem to be blocking the actual use of the CARES Act money.
3—GIVE US DAILY, DETAILED, ACCURATE PROGRESS REPORTS. To achieve sustained public buy-in of masking, distancing, and vaccine shots, we need to show that the strategy is working, that the hassle is paying off, that we can reach the ultimate steady-state target numbers for infection rates, positivity, or other parameters our public health scientists set. In addition to daily briefings by the Public Health Officer on the pandemic itself, we need to hear – every day – how many unemployed are being helped, how many renters are being assisted, how many near-homeless kept housed, how many students are actually studying.
The pandemic has undermined our entire socio-economic system – we need to see that we are systematically retooling for the world ahead and that we’re adjusting day by day to solve new problems as they arise.
IF WE ARE TO CORRAL THE VIRUS WE NEED MORE THAN MASKS.
LEADERSHIP MATTERS, STRATEGY COUNTS.