Are you prepared? Study finds states’ ability to handle public health emergencies mixed

According to a recent study, two-fifths of the nation’s state governments are ill-prepared to handle public health emergencies. The report also finds that the failing economic condition of most states and the H1N1 flue outbreak have exposed “serious underlying gaps” in states’ ability to respond to public health emergencies.

Produced by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the seventh annual assessment looked at ten indicators of public health emergency preparedness. The report Ready or Not? Protecting the Public’s Health from Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism, found that twenty states scored six or less out of ten key indicators of public health emergency preparedness. And nearly two-thirds of states score seven or less.

The preparedness indicators were developed in consultation with leading public health experts based on data from publicly available sources or information provided by public officials, according to TFAH officials. Some of the indicators included number of accessible public health labs in the state, the state’s connectedness with the CDC, has an established framework for enlisting medical volunteers, and has maintained or increased level of funding for public health services over the last two years, among others.

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Source: Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) released the seventh annual Ready or Not? Protecting the Public's Health from Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism report

Beyond these ten measurements, TFAH officials said the threat of H1N1 flue outbreak has given public officials a first-hand account of where gaps in preparedness remain problematic. “The H1N1 outbreak has vividly revealed existing gaps in public health emergency preparedness,” Richard Hamburg, Deputy Director of TFAH, said in a statement.

In addition to demonstrating operational and capacity shortfalls, the emergence of H1N1 also put the poor financial standing of public health emergency preparedness in the spotlight. The report found that “decades of chronic underfunding” jeopardized many real-time and at-the-ready systems meant to coordinate disease surveillance and lab testing. More than half of the states cut their public health funding while federal funds have been on the decline (by 27 percent) since 2005.

“State and local health departments around the country are being asked to do more with less during the H1N1 outbreak as budgets continue to be stretched beyond their limits,” said Michelle Larkin, J.D., Public Health Team Director and Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In addition to compiling the state assessments, the report offered a series of recommendations for improving preparedness. First and foremost, state and federal governments have to prioritize public health in their FY 2011 budgets, the report urged. Increases in transparency, accountability and community involvement should be central to any response plans moving forward. The report also suggested that H1N1 responses should be evaluated in full, and then used to revise and strengthen federal, state and local preparedness planning.

“The Ready or Not? report shows that a band-aid approach to public health is inadequate,” TFAH Deputy Director Hamburg concluded.

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