Instead of severing its 35-year epidemiology contract with Hennepin County as planned, Minneapolis is scaling it back for now because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The county will continue to track and investigate diseases in Minneapolis such as hepatitis, mumps, measles, HIV and tuberculosis, while the city does its own investigations into food and waterborne illnesses.
“We have the capacity in-house, there’s been some shifting of staff,” said Luisa Pessoa-Brandao, a manager in the Minneapolis Health Department who is part of the five-person epidemiology staff.
Late last year, Minneapolis officials said they would be ending the city’s long-standing contract with Hennepin County for epidemiology services. The city had been paying the county $200,000 annually to track and manage disease outbreaks. Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said her goal was to streamline the services by moving them to City Hall.
The city’s move came as a surprise to the county, which conducted a public study session on the issue with the County Board. The handover to the city was to occur at the end of March, when the contract ended. The state Health Department intended to oversee and manage the transition for Minneapolis.
But the coronavirus claimed the Health Department’s full attention. So city officials hit pause and agreed to a $150,000 contract for the remainder of the year with Hennepin County. The state is expected to review the new arrangement at the end of the year.
For now, the city will focus solely on food and water illnesses. Under the old model, city health inspectors would interview restaurant employees about illness outbreaks while Hennepin County would contact the customers. Now the city is doing both, Pessoa-Brandao said.
Hennepin County runs the largest local health department in the state. Bloomington performs similar services for Richfield and Edina, but Minneapolis has a uniquely vulnerable population with more poor and homeless residents.
The county’s six-person epidemiology unit treats and prevents environmental health issues. It tracks food-borne illnesses, lead contamination and indoor air complaints. The unit also inspects and investigates lodging, swimming pools, children’s camps and indoor air complaints.
County Public Health Director Susan Palchick said the new arrangement “make[s] sense” and that the “door was left open for future conversations” with the city about the investigations.