October 28, 2021

Indiana county taking health grant amid COVID-19 suspicions

Syringes at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Elkhart in March 2021. - Justin Hicks/IPB News

Syringes at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Elkhart in March 2021.

Justin Hicks/IPB News

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Northern Indiana’s St. Joseph County will accept a $3 million federal grant for health programs in minority communities even though some officials wanted to reject it over suspicions of facing more federal COVID-19 restrictions.

The Democratic-led County Council voted 7-1 Wednesday in favor of the grant program, overriding a vote by the all-Republican county commissioners last week to veto it.

The decision for the county that includes South Bend comes after officials in neighboring Elkhart County decided in September to turn down the same Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program amid vocal opposition from residents tying it to a litany of COVID-19 complaints.

St. Joseph County’s health department plans to use the three-year grant to hire eight new community health employees for outreach work among minority communities, the South Bend Tribune reported. Their work will include blood pressure and lead-poisoning screenings, as well as COVID-19 testing and vaccination.

“The fact we’re even here considering not appropriating this money is ridiculous,” Democratic Councilman Joe Canarecci said, calling the commissioners’ veto “nothing less than a public disservice.”

The Indiana Department of Health has recorded nearly 17,000 COVID-19 related deaths in the state, with both St. Joseph and Elkhart counties exceeding 500 deaths.

Two of the three St. Joseph County commissioners, Derek Dieter and Deb Fleming, voted against the program, saying they were concerned accepting the money would make the county subject to federal government mandates on masks and vaccines.

They pointed to language in the grant that stated recipients would be required to comply with directives to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to report data on infected people.

County Health Officer Dr. Robert Einterz said the department has been taking those actions since the pandemic hit the state.

“These are things that we’re already doing and obligated to do by the state of Indiana,” Einterz said.

Republican Councilman Richard Pfeil joined the council Democrats in voting to accept the grant, saying the county has already taken many more millions in federal money that has strings attached.

“Will this application of medical science save lives?” he said. “In my case, the answer is yes, it might save lives in this good county of ours.”

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