State launches new COVID-19 grant program requiring officials to address barriers to health care

Two people in PPE sit in chairs next to aone another
Maria Rogers answers questions as she gets registered for her second vaccine appointment during Juneau’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Centennial Hall on Jan. 15, 2021, in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The state health department is rolling out a new program designed to get millions in federal funds directly to boroughs and communities to help them combat COVID-19.

Applications for the first round of $37.5 million must be made to the Department of Health & Social Services by March 15.

“I know this has been a really quick turnaround time,” said Department of Health and Social Services Program Coordinator Maria Caruso, who’ll be administering the new program. “But again, we’ve been trying to get this together as quickly as possible and get it out to the communities as quickly as possible.” 

The money is supposed to be used to help with COVID-19 testing and vaccination. Each grant requires at least 10% has to go toward activities addressing obstacles to health, such as poverty or discrimination. 

Caruso and the health department encourage communities to team up with local nonprofits and other organizations to get the funds spread out equitably among residents. 

“Let’s say you have a goal of advancing equitable vaccine distribution among the Alaska Pacific Island community,” Caruso said during a public meeting on Friday. “That might look like a local government giving funds to the Polynesian Association of Alaska which will allow them to work with trusted community leaders on community education and outreach efforts on the vaccine.”

There’s a cap on how much funding is available for each city or borough based on population size. The City of Anchorage is eligible for more than $13 million, while Lime Village, near Bethel, is eligible for less than $650. 

Tribal health organizations are not eligible for the first round of funding. Caruso said they’re hoping to roll that program out by March. It will be a different application process — and a much smaller pot of money.

“The overall funding for tribal health organizations is $4.6 million that will be divided also by population. So, it just has to be a slightly different process because it’s a different type of entity. So that’s why they’re not included in this round of funding, but we’re hoping to get that information up as soon as possible,” Caruso said. 

Local governments will have to pay for the expenses upfront and then invoice the state for reimbursement. 

“We are going to try and make that happen as quickly as possible,” Caruso said. 

Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker said Tuesday during a community meeting that his borough needs the money. The borough has spent its CARES Act funding and doesn’t have many medical clinics or a hospital.

“We plan on using this funding to continue the robust testing and also the partnering that we’re doing to deliver the vaccine here where there’s currently no medical backing for that. So, we need the partner and we need this funding to help,” Walker. 

Applications are due to the state by March 15.

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