The Elkhart County Council voted unanimously Saturday to not apply for a federal health grant that would have helped educate minority populations about chronic diseases.
The $995,698 Centers for Disease Control grant — Community Health Workers for COVID Response and Resilient Communities — would have let the Elkhart County Health Department hire six community health workers.
They would have worked with the county’s Latino, Amish and Black communities to boost health literacy and education about chronic diseases such as diabetes or cancer.
County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait said the department decided to apply for the grant due to the results of community surveys that were conducted through the Goshen and Elkhart hospitals.
She said the Goshen survey found three major concerns among the Latino, Amish and Black communities — increased mental health resources, including a mobile crisis unit, health comorbidities and treatment of chronic diseases.
But all six members of the Elkhart County Council were against applying for it.
Their main concern? A line in the grant application stating the health department would assist the CDC in tracking and quarantining county residents who test positive for COVID-19.
“That sentence right there is a no for me,” council member Adam Bujalski said. “I refuse to say that whatever the federal government tells me I have to do, I have to do. I will never say that.”
Council member Doug Graham agreed.
“It specifically says on this grant that we are basically giving a blank check to the HHS secretary to whatever they would want to do in the future, we’d have to comply with it,” Graham said. “And I’m all for educating the community on infectious diseases and mental health and all these other things. But quite frankly, when I see this language it concerns me, and I am not willing to vote for the program.”
Numerous members of the public expressed similar concerns about the grant being used for education on COVID-19 and advocacy for COVID-19 vaccines, including Alison Gingerich.
“We are tired of being educated on COVID,” Gingerich said. “Any more education stands for threat, coercion, bullying and virtue signaling. And we are done with it.”
Gingerich said she wanted the council to vote no on the grant.
“We’re tired of masking our children, we’re tired of being forced to get vaccines,” Gingerich said. “We are concerned our freedoms are being taken away and by perpetuating this crisis that is not a crisis — you can look at the numbers, this is not a crisis. We are not tripping over dead bodies in the streets.”
But others urged the council to vote yes so the county could apply for the grant.
Dr. Daniel Nafziger, a former county health officer who is now the Chief Medical Officer at Goshen Health, said the grant would make the community’s health better over time. He also said area hospitals are currently on the brink due to surging COVID-19 cases.
“Things have never been worse than in the last three weeks,” Nafzinger said. “We are almost breaking right here in Elkhart County. There are people who need life-saving surgery right now who are not able to get it because our hospitals are overwhelmed.”
Gilberto Perez Jr. of Goshen said the grant would help Elkhart County combat shortages of healthcare workers. Bill Davis, one of the four Republican members of the Elkhart County Board of Health, said the grant would bring economic benefits.
“Apparently there’s good evidence, in this country and elsewhere, that community health workers really do ultimately improve the general health of the target population,” Davis said. “That ultimately saves dollars — Medicaid dollars, it saves the kind of dollars we spend locally and at the state level.”
And Goshen Clerk-Treasurer Richard Aguirre said the grant would help address health disparities in the county.
“I’m hoping that you will make this decision based on the facts before you and not based on fear,” Aguirre said. “And I hope you will also make this decision based on who this grant is intended to help — and that is folks that have underserved health and medical needs.”
Aguirre also said that if the council rejects applying for the grant based on the federal strings attached to it, they should also give up the $38 million Elkhart County is receiving from the federal American Rescue Plan.
“That’s the only consistent decision you would be able to make,” Aguirre said.
The council then voted unanimously to not apply for the grant.
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