December 4, 2022

The Nerve

Where Government Gets Exposed

Hundreds of millions in COVID funds remain unspent by health agency

By RICK BRUNDRETT

Of the more than $1 billion in state and federal funding provided to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to combat the coronavirus outbreak that hit South Carolina two years ago, nearly half of it remained unspent through February, The Nerve found in a review of agency records.

In documents submitted by DHEC at last week’s meeting of the state Joint Bond Review Committee (JBRC) – a 10-member legislative panel chaired by Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter – the agency said that as of Feb. 28, it had spent a total of $636.3 million, including $333.3 million on testing, $134.3 million for personnel costs, $68.3 million on vaccination efforts, and $33.7 million for contact tracing.

As of April 2, confirmed COVID-19 deaths and cases statewide since the start of the pandemic totaled 15,045 and 1.1 million, respectively, according to DHEC records.

DHEC documents presented to the JBRC show that since March 2020, the agency has received or been awarded a collective $1.1 billion in COVID funding, including $208 million in state surplus funds and 38 federal grants totaling $900.1 million.

But an overall $530.1 million, or 47.8% of the total provided funding, had not been spent as of Feb. 28, The Nerve’s review found. The percentages of unspent funds compared to the total awards ranged from 2.62% to 99.9%, with 10 federal grants having balances representing more than 90% of the awards.

The top-10 largest individual unspent amounts as of Feb. 28 included:

*$139.4 million in federal funds to reopen schools safely;

*$116.3 million in federal funds to “maximize the public health impact of available resources” involving “existing ELC (epidemiology and laboratory capacity) infrastructure”;

*$78.9 million in state surplus funds for a program allowing for the reimbursement of vaccine costs for hospitals and other medical providers;

*$29.6 million in federal funds to hire and train staff or contractors “needed to establish, expand and sustain a PH (public health) workforce”;

*$26.7 million in federal funds to “reduce COVID-19 related disparities among populations at higher risk and that are underserved”;

*$26.5 million in federal funds to support “vaccine administration, supplies” and to “monitor vaccination activities”;

*$25.8 million in federal funds for “prioritizing populations disproportionately” affected by COVID-19;

*$21.4 million in state surplus funds “necessary for the health, safety and welfare of the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic”;

*$18.5 million in federal funds for “prioritizing populations disproportionately” affected by COVID-19; and

*$11.1 million in state surplus funds “necessary for the health, safety and welfare of the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In a written response this week to The Nerve, DHEC spokesman Derrek Asberry said the largest grants run through July 2024, adding that the agency is “expected to provide additional work beyond our initial COVID response from these funds.” Other grants, he said, have a “very narrow focus and, while funds are plentiful, can only be spent on the specific intent,” adding, “Demand may not exist to support the full use of those grants.”

Asked if any remaining balances of the federal grants will have to be returned if not spent by the specified deadlines, Asberry replied, “Federal guidance for public health grants typically allows unused funds to be carried forward for the same purpose, but it is not yet known if this will apply to the grants funded under COVID-related response acts.”

For now, Asberry said, DHEC’s main focus is “making sure all residents have adequate access to the resources needed to treat COVID-19 as an endemic virus.”

“In short, our main priority is helping residents understand that we can safely co-exist with COVID-19 if we’re willing to stay up to date on vaccinations and boosters, mask up when recommended, and follow other health and safety guidelines,” he said.

Nerve intern Tyler Fedor contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-3948273 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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