Regroup, Refocus, Refresh: 2012 Public Health Preparedness Summit

Feb 20, 2012, 8:03 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Herrmann Jack Herrmann, NACCHO

The 2012 Public Health Preparedness Summit begins tomorrow in Anaheim, Calif. A key focus of the meeting is a close look at preparedness as federal funds diminish and local, state, tribal, and territorial health departments in some cases find themselves faced with the decision to eliminate critical preparedness activities.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Jack Herrmann, Senior Adviser and Chief of the National Association of County and City Health Officials Public Health Preparedness Programs and chair of the summit.

NewPublicHealth: What is critically important at this year’s Summit?

Jack Herrmann: I think what’s critically important is that this year’s theme will focus on the impact of budget cuts and other challenges that local and state public health professionals in the area of preparedness have had to deal with over the last year or so. And so, many of the sessions will be looking at tools and resources and other information to help them consider how to address and overcome some of these challenges.

NPH: What are ways that you’ve seen communities do that?

Jack Herrmann: There are actually two very divergent approaches to addressing some of these challenges. One is what we’re referring to now as doing less with less. Many health departments, for a number of years, were focused on trying to do more with less and now many are finding that, unfortunately, that they can’t cut any further into certain service areas without jeopardizing those programs. As a result they have had to make very difficult decisions to eliminate some of the programs and some of the initiatives around preparedness. Local and state health departments have to make really critical decisions that affect the safety, security and health of their community.

On the other hand, the more positive side is that many health departments are looking to develop partnerships with other agencies and organizations within their community or region to try to offset some of these challenges. And so, recognizing that public health departments at the local and state level can’t do it all, they’ve had to reach out and look to other organizations to help support them with these initiatives.

NPH: Is it particularly difficult to get communities to focus on preparedness when there doesn’t seem, in the public arena at least, to be an imminent danger, and when the flu season has been mild, so far this year?

Jack Herrmann: Yes, I think that it is a challenge to try to mobilize a community to be prepared when they don’t have something temporal to attach it to. We do see during times of disaster people are much more motivated or mobilized to take control and take responsibility for identifying how to make themselves and their families safe and more prepared. It’s during times like these when we haven’t had a major event that it’s difficult to mobilize that community, and it’s difficult to mobilize Congress to see the importance and the need for being prepared, staying prepared and continually invest in the preparedness initiative.

NPH: What are key sessions for this year’s meeting?

Jack Herrmann: The three main plenary sessions we have scheduled each morning of the conference identify critical topic areas and give attendees opportunities to look back at lessons learned as we move ahead in considering what preparedness needs. On the first day where we’ve invited a panelist from the Joplin, Mo. area who is involved in the response and recovery to the tornado really are going to help us understand the impact of the tornado on that community from a health care and public health perspective, and help identify what were the lessons learned. They’ll share ideas and plans that could help other communities prepare for such an event.

The second day, we’ve invited public health, federal leaders, as well as the screenwriter from the film Contagion and the science advisor to the movie, which really is an opportunity for us to consider what would happen if the nation experienced an emerging infectious disease like the one portrayed in Contagion? While certainly many parts of that were dramatized for the sake of it being a movie, there are key issues and important lessons that are raised in that movie, and so this is an opportunity for both our federal partners, and state and local health department representatives to share their perspective on responding to an event like that.

Then finally, D.A. Henderson, Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Public Health and Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh will give the final keynote speech. Here’s a man who really was at the forefront of bioterrorism preparedness coming in to the administration early after the events of 9/11, and he really looks back over the last ten years and compares that to where he was ten years ago looking forward and thinking about where the nation needed to go in its efforts to prepare for future bioterrorism attacks. He’ll talk about where we’ve veered offline and where we have stayed leaning forward.

NPH: What is your own look ahead?

Jack Herrmann: Well, I think there are a number of federal initiatives that we hope are going to strengthen our efforts to build a more prepared and resilient nation. Many of those initiatives are focused on looking at how local and state health departments are funded in order to build and sustain their preparedness efforts. At least two of the sessions will be focusing on the new grant alignment program joining efforts of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Office and the Public Health Emergency Preparedness funding through the CDC. Those are the primary funding portals for local and state health departments. Very few health departments receive either local funding or state funding to conduct their preparedness mission and rely on the federal funding. So, this new grant initiative, looking at integrating grants through a funding stream as well as looking for opportunities to integrate other federal funding mechanisms I think help us address the question of how can we best utilize the funds that we have in an efficient and effective manner to build effective public health preparedness.

And I think there’s going to be some interesting discussion around the administration of anthrax vaccine in the aftermath of a bioterrorism attack. I think it’s largely an area that local health departments aren’t really familiar with. We've been working for a long time on the plan to dispense antibiotics as a prophylactic measure in the aftermath of disaster, and now many health departments are learning there’s also a plan to administer a vaccine to those populations that might have been exposed to anthrax. Doing both at the same time would present significant challenges and hurdles for health departments because it all has to be done in a very short period of time and potentially to a large number of individuals.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.