Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus

©Kaiser Health News

The U.S. public health system has been starved for decades and lacks the resources to confront the worst health crisis in a century.

Marshaled against a virus that has sickened at least 2.6 million in the U.S., killed more than 126,000 people and cost tens of millions of jobs and $3 trillion in federal rescue money, state and local government health workers on the ground are sometimes paid so little that they qualify for public aid.

They track the coronavirus on paper records shared via fax. Working seven-day weeks for months on end, they fear pay freezes, public backlash and even losing their jobs.

Since 2010, spending for state public health departments has dropped by 16% per capita and spending for local health departments has fallen by 18%, according to a KHN and Associated Press analysis of government spending on public health. At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession, leaving a skeletal workforce for what was once viewed as one of the world’s top public health systems.

Looking ahead, more cuts are coming. Possible budget shortfalls in Brazos County, Texas, may force the health department to limit its mosquito-surveillance program and eliminate up to one-fifth of its staff and one-quarter of immunization clinics.

Months into the pandemic response, health departments are still trying to ramp up to fight COVID-19. Cases are surging in states including Texas, Arizona and Florida.

Meanwhile, childhood vaccinations began plunging in the second half of March, according to a CDC study analyzing supply orders. Officials worry whether they will be able to get kids back up to date in the coming months. In Detroit, the childhood vaccination rate dipped below 40%, as clinics shuttered and people stayed home, creating the potential for a different outbreak.

Cutting or eliminating non-COVID activities is dangerous, said E. Oscar Alleyne, chief of programs and services at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Cuts to programs such as diabetes control and senior nutrition make already vulnerable communities even more vulnerable, which makes them more likely to suffer serious complications from COVID. Everything is connected, he said.

It could be a year before there’s a widely available vaccine. Meanwhile, other illnesses, including mental health problems, are smoldering.

The people who spend their lives working in public health say the temporary coronavirus funds won’t fix the eroded foundation entrusted with protecting the nation’s health as thousands continue to die.

Contributing to this report were: Associated Press writers Mike Stobbe in New York; Mike Householder in Toledo, Ohio; Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City, Utah; Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland; Jim Anderson in Denver; Sam Metz in Carson City, Nevada; Summer Ballentine in Jefferson City, Missouri; Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Mike Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; Jeff Amy in Atlanta; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Morgan Lee in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and AP economics writer Christopher Rugaber, in Washington, D.C.