COVID-19 Underscores Our Need to Invest in Readiness for Health Threats

Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic underscore the critical need for everyone in the country to be served by a fully capable, fully funded public health department. Public health departments are our nation’s front line of response to public health emergencies. At full strength, our system of over 3,000 state, local, territorial, and tribal public health agencies is able to quickly identify and respond to health emergencies of all kinds. However, to be effective, each link in this protective network must have consistent, core capabilities. A gap in one community threatens the integrity of the whole system, especially when responding to infectious diseases. And today, unfortunately, there are gaps.

Current research shows it costs $32 per person per year to support the public health capabilities needed to protect health for everyone across the nation. Yet national investment to establish and maintain public health capabilities is currently about $19 per person, leaving a $13-per person gap in annual spending. This gap diminishes our ability to respond to crises and to assure the health of Americans, generally.

In the past, Congress has reacted to crises with special emergency funding. And then, when the crisis is over, returned to lower, insufficient funding levels. This pattern is not only ineffective, but also costs more than establishing lasting infrastructure. Tracking and containing dangerous diseases requires constant monitoring, trained personnel, and adequate facilities – as do all public health services. One-time reactive funding is a less safe and more expensive response to public health emergencies than proactive capacity building.

That is why last year the Public Health Leadership Forum at RESOLVE called for a sustained increase in federal public health funding. The proposed $4.5 billion Public Health Infrastructure Fund would close the gap between what we currently spend on public health and what is needed to assure all communities have the foundational public health capabilities to protect against health threats.

As we respond to COVID-19, we must also assess our readiness for the next crisis. Sustained investment in public health infrastructure is how we, as a nation, must prepare for and prevent pandemics and other health threats, now and in the future.

Mason Hines

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