The $1.9 million in pandemic aid would have gone a long way in Cochise County, a rural border region where a winter of infections has flooded hospitals. There was money for case follow-up. Testing in remote breeding towns. Funds to strengthen the Arizona County Health Department.
But the county’s Republican-controlled Board of Overseers stunned many residents and healthcare workers by voting last month to reject federal money, becoming one of the few places in America to deny Covid aid- 19 from Washington.
“We’re done,” said Peggy Judd, one of two Republican supervisors who voted against accepting the money. “We treat it like the common cold.”
The vote turned what would usually be a rote line on a government agenda into an emotional flashpoint in this county of 125,000 where life is shaped by the southwestern frontier, the rhythms of ranching and, now, a pandemic that has killed 522 residents.
For conservatives, throwing the money away felt like a declaration of independence in the wilderness, even though their rural county depends on a host of other federal spending and jobs provided by the military base at Fort Huachuca.
Doctors and hospital officials, usually reluctant to delve into divisive debates in their largely conservative county, began speaking out after hearing news of the 2-1 vote from The Herald/Review, the local newspaper. Some have criticized supervisors for bolstering local vaccine resistance with a slew of false anti-vaccine information.
“It’s madness,” said Dr. Cristian Laguillo, who treated a crush on Covid-19 patients at Copper Queen Community Hospital in the former copper mining town of Bisbee. “It was a decision made without thinking, without concern. It’s infuriating.
More than 200 small, rural towns across the country have turned down pandemic funds from the Biden administration, a tiny fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into cities and states, according to a National League of Cities survey. .
The Treasury Department has already sent $245 billion to local, state and tribal governments through the US bailout. A large majority eagerly took the money, including some elected Republicans who had opposed the measure. The money went to schools, healthcare systems and affordable housing, but also to non-Covid projects such as prison construction, highway projects and tax cuts, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Some small towns say they have no use for coronavirus relief as the pandemic enters a third year. And other conservative rural officials are refusing the money as a public repudiation of vaccination mandates, the $30 trillion national debt and a lingering pandemic that is killing 2,500 people every day even as new cases dwindle. and for Democratic states to lift pandemic restrictions like mask rules.
In Cochise County, critics said they were particularly stung by the timing. The January vote rejecting the money came as Omicron cases surged across the county, with the federal government dispatching a 15-person strike team at the request of the county’s largest hospital, Canyon Vista Medical Center.
Since there are few intensive care beds in the county, doctors said they spent hours on the phone pleading with crowded hospitals in Utah, Texas or Phoenix to take patients too sick to stay in. Cochise County. State data shows about 70% of county residents are vaccinated, but health officials say those numbers may be inflated by Mexican citizens crossing the border to get vaccinated.
Cochise supervisors who voted against the $1.9 million raised doubts about the safety and reliability of the vaccines, despite no evidence. Ms Judd said she and her family recovered from Covid-19 in November after drinking orange juice fortified with ivermectin, a drug commonly used to treat animal parasites that has become a go-to remedy for vaccine opponents. She said she and her family were still unvaccinated.
“We are those people,” she said in a phone interview, coughing occasionally – a lingering sign of the infection.
The fight in Cochise County is a skirmish in a larger battle conservative governors and local leaders have with the Biden administration over how to distribute billions of dollars in Covid-19 cash, echoing fights over whether states would expand Medicaid under Obamacare.
Thirteen states, mostly led by Republicans, have sued the Biden administration over restrictions in the coronavirus relief law that would have prevented them from using federal money to offset tax cuts. The Treasury Department has also battled with Republican governors in Florida and Arizona who have sought to deny federal funds to schools with mask mandates.
Two dozen states cut expanded unemployment benefits last summer, saying the extra money from the federal government was deterring unemployed Americans from looking for work. And a handful like Idaho and Iowa have either rejected or not spent millions on pandemic aid for school testing and rental assistance.
Alicia Thompson, Cochise County Health and Human Services Director, requested the disputed money more than a year ago in hopes of, among other things, doing more testing in rural areas, d to assess how Covid-19 had affected the community and to hire a financial director.
In the months that followed, she lost a cousin to the virus and hospitalized another on a ventilator. She still goes to work masked to try not to bring the virus back to her husband, who has a chronic lung disease. When the money vote came, she expected the county to accept it.
“It was a shock to me,” Dr. Thompson said. “I tried to figure out, what are the other ways, how can we still provide these services to community members?”
Ms. Judd said she voted to accept other federal funds for housing, law enforcement, addressing the opioid crisis and addressing other economic and health consequences of the pandemic. But she said she rejected the $1.9 million – which came from the US Department of Health and Human Services – because she doubted contact tracing, public health investigations and the hiring a security officer at the health department.
The other Cochise supervisor who voted against the money, Tom Crosby, compared Covid-19 vaccines to Agent Orange, the cancer-causing herbicide that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands during the Vietnam War . He said he wanted to “get the county out of the vaccine business.”
As the council considered whether to take the money at a meeting, Mr Crosby reminded the county’s director of public health that he had supported anti-Covid efforts earlier in the pandemic. But now?
“The general tendency of the government is to threaten and erode constitutional rights,” he said.
This wasn’t the first time Cochise County leaders have called attention to what critics call their dangerous views on vaccines or democracy.
The county’s Republican Party chairman was one of 11 Republicans who falsely claimed to be the state’s true voters despite President Biden’s victory in the state. And Ms. Judd and her family traveled to Washington in January 2020 to join the rally against certification of the presidential election. (She later told the Tucson Sentinel that she never entered the Capitol building and posted a statement on Facebook condemning the rioters and the violence.)
Ann English, an 80-year-old rancher and retired school administrator, was the only one to vote for the $1.9 million. Ms English, a Democrat, said the vote and the Covid-catalyzed anger swirling across the country reflected how much misinformation and division were now sown in the soil of local politics.
“I don’t understand why anyone would want us to turn down money that would help keep people safe,” Ms English said. “It’s health we’re talking about.”