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Pandemic Scare reveals Gaps in Public Health

by Admin on May 27, 2009

Flu burdens overloaded public health system.

Flu burdens overloaded public health system.

Must reading for those in emergency management is a story in yesterday’s Washington Post, “Flu Scare Reveals Strapped Local Health Agencies”.

An excerpt reveals the real life stories behind the crisis.

_Twenty-nine public health workers in Sacramento County, Calif., learned just before being called to work on swine flu that they probably will lose their jobs this summer. Senior nurse Carol Tucker, contacting potential flu victims, thought about future epidemics.

“Who will be around to do these things?” she said.

_Nationwide, officials have reported more than more than 6,700 swine flu cases, and 12 deaths.

“We have good plans and we’re exercising them,” said Matthew A. Stefanak, health commissioner of Mahoning County, Ohio, whose work force dropped 20 percent in two years. “But for the nuts and bolts of an outbreak _ contact investigations, probable cases of H1N1 flu _ we don’t have the manpower, the trained disease investigators the public health nurses who would do it. That’s where we’re weakest right now.”

A shrinking economy means a lot more people turning to their local public health agencies for medical treatment at a time when budgets for public health are being cut in 21 states so far this year.

When flu shots to prevent seasonal influenza are most needed, some public health agencies have had to suspend vaccinations entirely. Staffing shortages are common-place, and those who remain are overworked, and burdened with required emergency exercises.

The Swine Flu outbreak merely cast a shadow on a major problem affecting the entire health care system, which is a critical lack of surge capacity. Any mass casualty event including pandemics, major acts of terrorism, chemical leaks, etc. could easily overwhelm the surge capacity to accept and treat patients anywhere in the US. Region wide or nationwide disasters could overwhelm health care providers in several states almost overnight.

Numerous studies have pointed out the gap, but solutions to the problem have been hard to find, and even tougher to sell on Capitol Hill. This article does a great job of detailing where the ‘stress points” in the public health system are. Perhaps now that new attention is being focused, political action will soon follow.

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