The American public health system has long been considered one of the best in the world, but decades of underfunding have left states and counties woefully ill-equipped to handle the worst pandemic in a century.
An extensive analysis by Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press found that over the past ten years, per-capita spending by state and local public health departments has dropped by 16 and 18 percent, respectively, leaving our public health system “underfunded and under threat, unable to protect the nation’s health”.
Public health departments are mandated to provide a laundry list of critical functions, from restaurant inspections and water testing to immunizations. But over time, many of these functions have been privatized, and staff and budgets reduced. Both were cut further as state budgets tightened.
The federal government has extended $13B in emergency funding, but many local public health departments have still been forced to furlough workers during the pandemic. Citing comparisons to the funding extended during other crises like Zika and the H1N1 influenza, experts are concerned that baseline budgets will continue to decline.
Moreover, public health workers face unprecedented cultural challenges, and are often disrespected by political and clinical leaders. And as public health workers are putting themselves at risk of COVID exposure just to do their jobs, many face resentment and anger from angry citizens who blame them for the policies they are charged to enforce—with some local public health leaders even resigning due to threats and intimidation.
The current crisis has shown that we need a more expansive, and better coordinated public health infrastructure. Getting there will require not just more investment, but repairs to the foundation of this critical national asset.