City emails reveal frustration over ‘pitiful’ federal funding for initial coronavirus response

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Congress and the Minnesota Legislature are now committing hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the spread of COVID-19 and reduce its impact on the state, but a 5 INVESTIGATES review of internal communication at the Minneapolis Health Department during the first days of March reveals internal frustration over a lack of funding, including what one city official described as a “pitiful” amount from the federal government in the early stages of the crisis.

Two days before the first positive case of COVID-19 in Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced initial funding to a “limited number” of state and local jurisdictions to try to contain the spread of the virus.

But that announcement did not get a positive response from Minneapolis Preparedness Manager Pam Blixt.

“This is pitiful. It is hardly worth the time and effort to distribute it,” Blixt wrote in an email to other health department employees dated March 4.

The emails from March 4 through March 8, obtained through the Minnesota Data Practices Act, also include communication about a diminishing stream of federal Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) funding since the program’s inception shortly after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

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One message noted that Minnesota’s share of the PHEP money had fallen from about $16 million in 2002 to about $10 million in 2019.

State and city public health managers said the funding is important for training as well as the purchase and storage of personal protective equipment, such as safety masks, which are now in short supply.

“That poses a huge challenge for planning,” said Cheryl Petersen-Kroeber, Director of Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Minnesota Department of Health. “You’re not going to buy fire trucks when the fire’s already burning. You need to have those ready.”

Minneapolis Health Department Commissioner Gretchen Musicant echoed that sentiment and said the level of PHEP funding the city received prior to the coronavirus outbreak was extremely limited.

“Essentially, it gives us two employees that have time to spend planning and then preparing the rest of our staff,” Musicant said.

Musicant said the city is still waiting for some emergency dollars from the feds to arrive.

“I think that’s the main frustration – the rate at which it takes money to flow,” Musicant said.

Others at the state health department share that frustration.

“Quite honestly, there are a few jurisdictions around the state who have about a four-hour-a-week position paid for with this (PHEP) money and that’s it,” Petersen-Kroeber said. “It’s tragic that we’re at this point, but I think being Minnesotans and being public health people, people will do what they can to meet the need. I think we would have been better prepared if there was more substantial funding all along.”