Somewhere in Wyoming, there is a local clinic where everyone – sick patients and staff, adults and children alike – have to grab hold of the same doorknob over and over, no automatic door in sight.

“Maybe a clinic or hospital doesn’t have the kind of doors where you can get in without touching the handle,” said Lorraine Werner, community programs director U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Office. “That spreads germs, to open and close doors.”

That kind of improvement may seem out of reach to a clinic in a town of 500, but in the COVID-19 era, the United States Department of Agriculture has made up to $500 million available in grants to help rural health care facilities, tribes and communities expand access to COVID-19 vaccines, health care services and nutrition assistance.

“We are the only federal agency that can build a small town from the underground up. We do water and sewer, housing, businesses and community facilities that are essential for rural living,” Werner said.

Applicants may apply for two types of assistance: Recovery Grants and Impact Grants, designed to provide immediate COVID-19 relief to support rural hospitals, health care clinics and local communities. Funds can be used to increase COVID-19 vaccine distribution and telehealth capabilities; purchase medical supplies; replace revenue lost during the pandemic; build and rehabilitate temporary or permanent structures for health care services; support staffing needs for vaccine administration and testing; and support facility and operations expenses associated with food banks and food distribution facilities.

The American Rescue Grant and Emergency Funding may be new, but the spirit in which it will be allocated is not, Werner said.

In 2020, USDA Rural Development funding was allocated to the Platte Valley Healthcare Project for construction of a critical access hospital in Saratoga. Rural Development provided an $18.3 million community facilities loan for the hospital project, which will cost around $23.8 million.

When completed, the hospital in the rural Upper North Platte River Valley will have a 24-hour emergency room, advanced imaging capabilities – including ultrasound, X-ray, MRI and CT – and will feature an inpatient pharmacy, laboratories and physical and occupational therapy facilities.

Saratoga’s was the first critical access hospital approved for federal funding during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new grant programming will continue to target COVID-19 relief in rural areas.

The American Rescue Grant and Emergency Funding allocations will be based on median household income and population in any given community.

“If you are over 20,000 in population, you are not eligible for a grant under this program,” Werner said. “But if you are a health care organization in a small town, maybe you had to buy extra equipment or supplies. Perhaps you have lost revenue. Everything can be looked at, in the sense of what did you have before the pandemic, and what did you have in the year after?”

The recovery grants and impact grants will be allocated in two tracks, she explained. The first track will likely include reimbursement funding, but it could also include allocation for small construction projects. For now, Wyoming has been allocated about $1.7 million in track one funding. The maximum amount any one entity can apply for in track one funding is $1 million.

“As far as construction goes, maybe a hospital found out that they didn’t have any rooms where they were able to isolate people when they have a contagious disease,” Werner said. “That may cost $200,000 to retrofit rooms for a future pandemic, so we can help them do that with grant funding.”

For food banks, perhaps there is a need for reimbursement due to increased costs during the pandemic.

“If an organization had to buy more food because people were coming in without jobs due to the pandemic, or maybe they had to pay for extra help to deliver food or had additional equipment – whatever it might be related to the pandemic, we would look at that,” Werner explained.

A CPA will have to certify numbers, looking at pre-pandemic data and the increase to 2020 and 2021 numbers. Anyone wondering if their organization qualifies should reach out to the USDA office. The first round of grant applications are due Oct. 12. Werner said she hopes to get at least 15 to 20 grant applications for track one funding, and also hopes to spend all of Wyoming’s allocation so it is not returned unused to the federal government.

“Once we’ve spent our allocation, if another state hasn’t spent theirs or there is a reserve in the national office, I might be able to get more funding,” she said.

Track two funding is designed to reach a consortium of three or more entities that can take on bigger projects. Participating entities must be separate entities, and can’t be the same hospital with three different clinics.

“If three hospitals or three clinics run by different boards, or even in different towns, wanted to get together and build additions onto their clinics for pandemic isolation, or even if they wanted to get together and buy freezers for vaccines, that would qualify,” Werner said. “They could apply for a larger amount.”

Most construction will happen under track two, she said. All funding approved for track two will have to secure federal approval, she said, and again, any money not used in track two will be returned.

“We are taking applications, and we will keep going strong until the funding is gone,” Werner said. “We want to make sure that everyone that can apply, does apply. We want to make sure we get as much help back to Wyoming as we can.

“What we are trying to do with these rural allocations is to help small, rural clinics or whoever might have been hurt by COVID-19,” Werner said. “COVID has done a lot of damage, and we’re trying to help make places whole again. We want to move forward in a positive way, and not lose the rural health care that we have.”

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