Federal grant funding at stake after Garfield County commissioners reject contract on COVID information program for Spanish speakers

Likely forego federal pandemic response grant in doing so

Garfield County Public Health has been working to provide important COVID-19 information in Spanish, such as this Facebook post, but ultimately wants to get boots on the ground through its Promotoras Project.

A disagreement between Garfield County Public Health staff and county commissioners over a contract meant to help inform Spanish-speaking residents about coronavirus concerns will likely mean the loss of federal grant money to pay for the program.

County commissioners, in a 3-0 vote on Monday, rejected a $40,000 sole source contract with the Denver-based nonprofit organization Trailhead Institute to serve as the fiscal agent for the county’s Promotoras Project.

The project is aimed at disseminating information about COVID-19 and how to prevent its spread to the county’s Latino community in a more direct, trustworthy way.

Training materials have already been developed, and six Spanish-speaking “promotoras” had been hired to comb the county, speaking directly with Latino families and businesses.

Garfield Public Health (GCPH) planned to use $40,000 of a $50,000 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment pass-through grant meant to help the county achieve a lower level of disease spread and eventually reopen businesses more fully.

But the use of an outside entity to administer the program, without going through a competitive bidding process, was not something the commissioners were willing to support.

“This whole thing stinks, to be blunt about it,” Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said of the proposed sole source contract with Trailhead.

Jankovsky noted that he supports the promotoras effort, and called it a “great program,” but said he couldn’t support the contractual means to deliver it.

He and fellow commissioners Mike Samson and John Martin said they would prefer to see a competitive bidding process, in hopes of keeping the program administration local.

“We have a lot of local nonprofits here in our community that would be a great fit for this,” offered Tanya Doose, executive director of the West Garfield County Chamber of Commerce, based in Rifle. “I’m concerned that we’re not supporting our local organizations that can do this kind of work.”

The chamber itself might also be able to support that effort, she said.

“If we could do this with our own local people, I think that would be the best way to go,” Samson said.

Martin acknowledged that the time it would take to put the contract out to bid most likely means forfeiting the grant money. Those funds, similar to other federal COVID-response funds, are required to be spent by the end of the year.

However, COVID-19 is not going away in 2021, Martin also noted, and the program is still worth pursuing.

Garfield County Public Health Manager Josh Williams explained that the sole-source approach was meant to expedite the process and make use of the federal COVID-response grant before the end of the year.

“That’s why we moved in the direction we did, and (Trailhead) is already performing this same task in other places around the state,” he said.

The promotoras program itself was developed by GCPH staff using a separate grant, and was modeled after similar programs elsewhere in the state.

Trailhead administers a similar program in the San Luis Valley, said Sarah Lampe, president and executive director for Trailhead, who spoke during the Monday Board of County Commissioners meeting.

“We provide the fiscal administrative support … to get paid promotoras out in the community, and to make sure they meet the expectations of the contract,” Lampe said.

One concern raised by Commissioner Jankovsky during an earlier discussion of the contract proposal last month was that some of the workers lined up to do the work locally are undocumented immigrants.

That issue was addressed by GCPH staff, Williams said. “We are wary about how to move forward and make sure there is not any impropriety,” he said.

Supporters of the promotoras effort say it’s important for the immigrant community that those sharing the information and asking people to take the proper precautions be representative of the Latino community.

Alex Sanchez is executive director of Glenwood Springs-based Voces Unidas, an organization working to make sure Latino interests are heard in public policy decisions. He has been critical of the way Garfield County has handled efforts to make sure the Latino community stays informed during the COVID pandemic.

“We remain concerned that Garfield County does not have a plan to counter the disproportionate impact of this pandemic on the Latino community,” Sanchez said.

To date, about 62% of COVID-19 cases in Garfield County have involved “Hispanic or Latino” residents, based on Public Health’s coronavirus data, where the county’s overall population is about 30% Hispanic/Latino.

“We are encouraged by the professionals in our area public health departments working to address this,” Sanchez said. “Obviously, we are disappointed that Garfield County is not protecting all residents of the county.

“There’s no room for politics when it comes to a pandemic, and we need to make sure our policies support all communities,” he said.

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