Improvements in nationwide readiness for emergencies like bioterrorism or pandemic flu heralded by a new report may already be in jeopardy, thanks to dwindling budgets and shrinking staffs.
“Much progress has been made to build and strengthen national public health preparedness and response capabilities,” the report says.
But the report measures state activities between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, before the worst effects of the Great Recession began to hit state and local budgets. The readiness of the country to respond to a threat two years later could be significantly different.
“As cuts continue happening to everybody’s budgets, we’re losing manpower. We’re losing our overall ability to respond,” said Jim Beasley, spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“It makes it harder to respond to a widespread emergency if you don’t have the people in place to actually administer the shots or give out the pills,” he said.
From a high of $970 million for state and local health departments in 2003, the funding had shrunk to $689 million in public health emergency preparedness money dispensed in 2009. “The current economic climate and budget cuts represent real threats to our preparedness,” said Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust For America’s Health, in a statement Tuesday. “They are already starting to erode the progress that has been made and forcing state and local public health departments to cut jobs.”
A survey released in May by the National Association of County and City Health Officials found that from January 2008 to December 2009, local health departments lost about 23,000 jobs to layoffs and attrition, about 15 percent of the total work force.
The job losses sped up in 2009, after most of the data in the CDC report was compiled, with 46 percent of local health departments experiencing budget-related job cuts between June and December.
The Trust For America’s Health, along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also studies state preparedness for major health emergencies. In its most recent report, released last December, it gave high marks to the Carolinas, echoing the CDC findings.
The states got points from the CDC for the capabilities of their public health labs and for the overall state of planning for emergencies: South Carolina scored a 93 and North Carolina a 98 in the latter category, which requires a score of at least 69 to be considered acceptable.
“North Carolina and South Carolina both do fairly well in preparedness,” said Laura Segal, a spokeswoman for the Trust For America’s Health. “But clearly the budget cuts are a major concern, and they are not reflected either in the CDC report or in our last assessment.”
A full copy of the report is available from the CDC website at: http://emergency.cdc.gov/publications/2010phprep/