April 01, 2021REGION — State legislators announced last week that the Ammonoosuc Community Health Center (ACHS) was one of ten New Hampshire community health centers awarded grants to expanded access to COVID-19 vaccinations.
President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law on March 11. Since then, Granite Staters have seen hundreds of millions in funding support, including $350 million for public schools and over $20 million to support New Hampshire health care centers. The new health care funding is expected to arrive in April.
While most of the recipients were located south of the Notch, three North Country organizations will also gain support. The Berlin-based Coos County Family Health Service received $2,372,500 and Colebrook's Indian Stream Health Center was awarded $1,033,625.
ACHS was granted $2,092,375. According to CEO Ed Shanshala, the money could be used for both operational expenses and vaccine expansion.
"When we receive one-time funding like this, we categorically invest in areas with a greater shelf life than then next ten to twenty years. We look for the best return on investment to address ongoing healthcare needs, rather than investing in operational expenses, which tend to be a one-time investment," said Shanshala.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), spending guidelines allowed for increased COVID-19 vaccinations, testing and treatment for vulnerable populations, and delivering preventative and primary health care services for people at higher risk of virus exposure.
Funding could also be used to expand short and long-term operational capacity. Such improvements could include physical infrastructure and the purchase of mobile units.
With six North Country locations, ACHS planned to address unique needs in each community, said Shanshala. Such projects could include the completion of renovations in Woodsville, standard facility repairs in Littleton and an expansion to the existing Whitefield property.
Ongoing drought conditions have placed undue strain on Warren's water supply in recent years. Shanshala said the health center was considering installing a private well to lessen the impact on an already struggling system.
"We need to invest wisely. When we change exam rooms or physical layouts, we do so with an eye towards what we've learned through this pandemic and how best to modify for the future to keep people safer from communicable diseases," noted Shanshala.
During the early days of the pandemic last year, ACHS purchased approximately 100 surgical air purifiers to isolate individual exam rooms. The $200,000 price tag was covered through direct relief funding, said the health care leader.
Although some southern New Hampshire community health centers planned to purchase mobile units with the American Relief Act funds, Shanshala said he did not expect to do the same.
"The mobile vaccination units usually run about a half million dollars. Those units allow teams to get out into the homeless populations and administer vaccines," he explained.
Shanshala continued, "We also have homeless people up here, but they're different. They live in the woods or couch surf. They're not on the street, and they don't congregate at specific locations. It's more difficult to figure out how to serve because we don't know where they are."
Shanshala also noted that access to vaccine supplies wasn't as challenging as finding enough qualified people to administer the shots.
"The vaccines we get do not come from the state supply. We get it directly from the federal government. Every vaccine we bring in is in addition to what the state does, and that's helpful. The rate limiter for us is having enough vaccinators, although we have staff rotating through our Saturday clinics and we use the Medical Reserve Corps," he explained.
Shanshala continued, "One of our challenges is that we continue to see patients regularly for all of their primary care needs. It's difficult to add vaccination to that process because the patients need to remain in place for 15 to 20 minutes after the shot, and we can't utilize the exam rooms while they are occupied."
New Hampshire Rep. Anne Kuster and Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Maggie Hassan and Chris Pappas co-released a statement about the American Rescue Plan last week.
Shaheen noted, "This funding is a crucial investment that will put us one step closer to the goal of ensuring all Granite Staters are able to get vaccinated, while also supporting our community health centers on the front lines. These funds are especially important for our rural communities and will provide a necessary boost in assistance, which they urgently need."