Smith County Commissioners Court votes to expand COVID-19 testing in the county

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SMITH COUNTY, Texas (KETK) – The Smith County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to approve an agreement with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler that will fund expanded COVID-19 testing in the county.

The agreement calls for spending $650,564 of the County’s CARES Act funds for testing kits, facility renovations and upgraded equipment for the Public Health Laboratory of East Texas (PHLET) to expand its COVID-19 testing capabilities.

This allocation represents 12.18 percent of the total $5.38 million that the county is eligible to receive in funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help pay for COVID-19 expenses. The federal deadline to spend allocated funds is December 30, 2020.

The enhancements will expand the lab’s COVID-19 testing capacity from 50 tests per day to 250 tests per day and tie the lab’s systems into those of UT Health Science Center at Tyler to reduce the chances of an interruption of service provided by the lab.

The PHLET serves Texas Health Service Region 4 and 5 North and has tested COVID-19 samples from 31 of the 35 counties in East Texas.

Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said the idea came out of meetings with other local officials during Emergency Operations Center meetings about how to best utilize Smith County’s CARES Act funding in a meaningful way that would have an impact on the health of the community beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moran said he sees the lab upgrades as a long-term investment from Smith County to benefit not only all of Smith County, but all of the Northeast Texas Public Health District’s seven-county region and beyond. 

“Certainly, there are consumables that require the use of our local CARES Act funding such as face masks and hand sanitizer, but I see this opportunity as an investment, rather than as an expenditure,” Moran said. “It will return health dividends for years to come for this community. It’s an opportunity to strategically partner with UT Health Science Center at Tyler where the benefits are tangible, long-lasting, and have multiple uses beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. In my opinion, this will be the most impactful use of our grant funding.”

“I want to thank Congress for the CARES Act and the Smith County Commissioners Court for securing this funding in support of the Public Health Laboratory of East Texas,” UT Health Science Center at Tyler President Dr. Kirk A. Calhoun said. “This funding will allow us to better respond to emergencies like COVID-19, and provide greater access to necessary testing.”

Dr. Jeffrey Levin, who serves as the Local Public Health Authority and oversees the PHLET, said the interlocal agreement will allow for CARES Act funding received by the county to be used for necessary systems upgrades at the PHLET and for acquisition of essential laboratory equipment and supplies to continue to perform this important testing in a sustainable and safe manner.

“The PHLET is a complex laboratory with appropriate certifications to conduct testing of clinical and other specimens in a safe and secure environment,” Levin said. “In the early days of the pandemic, the Public Health Laboratory of East Texas prepared itself to receive test kits from the CDC and initially provided the region and the community with one of the few available resources to conduct testing for SARS-CoV-2.”  

While approving the interlocal agreement, the County Commissioners paid special tribute to Dr. Levin, who has served as the Local Health Authority for Smith County throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and who is currently the Director of the PHLET. Levin retired from UTHSCT August 15, after 32 years of service.

“We cannot thank Dr. Levin enough for his leadership throughout this pandemic and for the decades before,” Judge Moran said. “Without his sound and steady medical advice and guidance, this community would not have fared nearly as well throughout this pandemic. He will be deeply missed as a valued partner of our Joint EOC operations, but we wish him the best in his retirement.”

The CRF was created to provide financial resources to state and local governments for direct coronavirus related expenses. The Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) administers the CRF allocation to the State of Texas by the United States Department of the Treasury. Other items Smith County has purchased using the CRF funding include:

  • 20 phones and 20 computers for NET Health via an interlocal agreement for NET Health to expand its local contact tracing efforts in conjunction with the dedication of no-cost office space in the Courthouse Annex Building;
  • More than 40,000 disposable masks for use by employees and the public;
  • 500 face shields for election workers to use in the November General Election;
  • 20,000 “finger cots” for voters to use in the November General Election;
  • 70 free-standing hand sanitizer stations for use at each election polling location and at various county facilities;
  • More than 20,000 pairs of disposable gloves for use by county employees;
  • 2 walk-through metal detectors for use in off-site jury selection;
  • More than 50 laptops for use by employees to undertake county business remotely and ensure continuity of services to the public; and
  • More than 500 COVID-19 tests for county employees.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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