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County declines to pursue community health grant

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ELKO – A proposal to use a $500,000 federal grant to look at establishing a health department in Elko County failed when Elko County Commissioners voted against applying for the grant, a day after the Elko City Council voted to support the proposal.

Commissioners decided Wednesday to reject the grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study prospects for creating a local health department that would have been bigger than the public health office in the county that shut down 16 years ago.

“I think we’re building a department I don’t want,” said Commissioner Rex Steninger, who said he wants to prevent the growth of county government and creating a new department “flies in the face of that.”

Commissioner Cliff Eklund agreed that he would like to keep government “on a smaller scale, and I really don’t understand the goal of this whole thing,” but Commissioner Wilde Brough said he would probably vote for it because of the health needs in the county, especially for mental health care.

The majority of commissioners and a few of those commenting from the audience worried about the federal grant leading to more federal control and increasing the size of government, but Gerald Akerman of the University of Nevada, Reno, offices in Elko said he was “trying to get his head around” the concern about losing federal control.

He said building a county health department would “give us local control.”

Abby Wheeler, who heads the county’s transportation department but has been working on health issues, told the Elko City Council Tuesday evening that with the $500,000 grant, staff would create a business model for a health department and provide some public services “at the same time.”

The grant would pay for two employees.

One job for a full county health department would be to take over restaurant inspections from the state health department that has an office in Elko, and those inspections would bring in fees to the new department, Wheeler said.

“The long and short of it” is that Elko County historically had a community nursing program that provided services locally and to outlying areas, but currently there is a lack of services to outlying areas of the county, she said.

Wheeler told the council the study also could look at creating a district health department with neighboring counties, and “by the way, the state would like this to happen.”

Marena Works, the county’s deputy health officer, said the study funded by the CDC grant would look at the gaps not covered by the Nevada Health Centers and look at the finances involved in establishing a department.

“The grant doesn’t have a stipulation that a health department has to happen,” she said.

Elko City Manager Curtis Calder said he was looking at this from a “different perspective after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. “A public health department would have been good to have before the pandemic started.”

Councilwoman Mandy Simons made a motion that Calder sign a letter supporting the concept of a health department.

At the county meeting, Terri Clark, chairman of the Northeastern Nevada Regional Development Authority, said a local health department would be a tool in recruiting businesses to the area, and as a Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital employee, she said a local health department would help in recruiting doctors.

Marianne McKown of Vitality Center said a local or district health department would also mean better local health data, such as for tuberculosis cases.

On the opposing side, Jeanne Hansen, expressed concern about taking a federal grant, and she said that would “forge chains between Elko County and the federal government.”

Stephanie Licht suggested local money could be used to get local medical organizations together to look at a health department or come up with a plan instead of using federal dollars.

Along with presentations to the county and city council, a workshop on the CDC Workforce Grant was held on Dec. 8 in Elko, funded by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services through the Public Health Regional Partnership Project aimed at providing health services in the rural counties.

A handout for the proposal states that although the state is the county’s health department, the state “cannot respond to Elko County in a timely manner because of a combination of staffing availability, distances, and geography.”

Back in August, Elko County Commissioners tabled the proposal to accept a $500,000 grant from the CDC until they had more details, and at that time, Elko County Manager Amanda Osborne said staff had looked in November 2019 at the possibility of establishing a health department, but the COVID-19 pandemic stalled that effort.

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