WASHINGTON — The fumbled response to the first coronavirus case potentially contracted within a U.S. community, in California, shows how health professionals on the front lines can be quickly overmatched by the stealthy disease.
And the prospect of more widespread outbreaks could put major stress on state and local health departments that are underfunded and already grappling with a bad flu season, vaping-related illnesses and the ravages of the opioid epidemic. The departments have already seen the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s budget for state and local emergency preparedness cut by a third from fiscal 2003 to 2019, with small increases the past two years not making up for the losses.
The fragile state of public health defenses became clear this week, when a California woman potentially exposed dozens of people at a small hospital more than a week before she was diagnosed with coronavirus, because she didn’t initially meet the criteria to be tested. Even after she was transferred to a larger facility, it took until Sunday to confirm a diagnosis because the CDC also at first said the patient did not meet the testing criteria.
Officials across the country are trying to avoid such scenarios and scrambling to prepare without a clear sense of what they’re up against.
Washington state officials, who responded to the first coronavirus case on U.S. soil, are spending more than $50,000 a day on masks and other medical supplies and specialized training. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants the legislature to approve $40 million to staff and equip a coronavirus response. Dallas health workers are figuring out where they would put patients who need to be quarantined. In Huntington, W.Va., the epicenter of the opioid crisis, officials are preparing to postpone some of their health department’s long-term work on drug addiction if a surge of cases hits.
The officials say it’s part of a longstanding pattern in both red and blue states: agencies that routinely are the stepchildren in state government being suddenly thrust into a new emergency with tight budgets and multiple missions.
“When it’s functioning properly, you’re not really sure what public health is doing. But then when there’s a crisis, you realize that it’s so important,” said Vit Kraushaar, the Southern Nevada Health District’s medical investigator. Read more…