The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), the voice of the nation’s nearly 3,000 local health departments, has released an infographic that illustrates the critical role of local health departments in protecting communities from public health threats such as COVID-19, as well as challenges cause by insufficient resources and investments in public health.
Local health department staff are frontline responders to public health emergencies, carrying out key activities like monitoring disease outbreaks, coordinating resources with healthcare partners, and educating and sharing credible information with the public. However, they do this critical work before a backdrop of budget and staffing cuts that limit the operating capacity of preparedness and response. As demonstrated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, this means local health departments are often forced to shift resources from other pressing public health activities – such as immunization, HIV, STI and hepatitis programs, food safety, overdose prevention and response, and vector control – to adapt to the demands of emergencies.
Local health departments have a mission to protect all aspects of public health, but unfortunately, they are continually forced to deprioritize one issue for the sake of another. Inadequate resources endanger local health departments’ ability to protect the public’s health and safety.
- More than 9 in 10 Americans are endangered by the underfunding of local public health. 312 million people in the U.S. live in jurisdictions with stagnant or reduced budgets for local health department preparedness and response activities.
- An overwhelming majority of local health departments are on the front lines of emergency response. 95% of Local health departments conduct activities to prepare for and respond to public health emergencies.
- 2 in 3 local health departments have not received funding increases needed to optimally protect public health. 65% of Local health departments reported experiencing flat funding or cuts to their overall operations last year, and 81% reported this for preparedness and response funding specifically.
- 3 in 4 local health departments rely on volunteers. 76% of Local health departments reported using volunteers to respond to public health incidents.
- 2 in 3 local health departments have to divert staff for emergency response. 64% of local health departments involve non-preparedness and response staff in response activities, stretching the already limited workforce. Unfortunately, this is not a sustainable model during long-term responses like that of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, and beyond COVID-19, local health departments need ongoing support in a number of areas including:
- Robust and stable funding that can be applied flexibly.
- Cross-sector engagement between public health, healthcare, and response organizations.
- Resources for workforce development that promote cross-training.
- Access to tailored tools, best practices, and lessons learned to guide preparedness planning and response activities.
Additional data related to these issues can be found in NACCHO’s full 2019 Profile of Local Health Departments and Local Health Department Capacity to Prepare for and Respond to Public Health Threats.
Local health departments and other members of the public health preparedness community are currently meeting virtually to share their experiences, learn from others, and mobilize the field to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic and the many other threats to public health and health security at the 2020 Preparedness Summit. Members of the media can contact Theresa Spinner to request free access to this conference, including recorded sessions, being held virtually August 25-27.