Ready or Not? Preparing for Public Health Emergencies

Dec 19, 2012, 11:11 AM

The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) has released the 2012 edition of its Ready or Not? report. The annual report details and analyzes state and federal public health preparedness. This year’s entry focuses on emergency preparedness, looking at 10 indicators that help reveal the strengths and vulnerabilities in each state’s emergency preparedness status. TFAH’s hope is that policymakers, taxpayers and other groups can utilize the data to shore up their programs and policies—and help ensure they are ready to support public health in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency.

Among the key findings:

  • 29 states cut funding for public health from FY 2010-11 to FY 2011-12
  • 35 states and Washington, D.C. do not currently have climate change adaptation plans, which include planning for the health threats posed by extreme weather events
  • 21 states have not been accredited by the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP)
  • 13 state public health laboratories report they do not have sufficient capacity to work five, 12-hour days for six to eight weeks in response to an infectious disease outbreak, such as novel influenza A H1N1

This emphasis on analyzing emergency preparedness is especially meaningful now, with many in the Northeast still working to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. NewPublicHealth had been closely following public health’s role in responding to and recovering from Hurricane Sandy, and will continue to take an in-depth look at how this disaster continues to affect public health.

Here’s a look at some of the many ways NewPublicHealth has covered the intersection of public health and emergency preparedness:

Hurricane Sandy Recovery: New Jersey’s Health Commissioner Helms Response Roundtable
Just two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit, the State of New Jersey held a Response Roundtable at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune Township, N.J., to begin a review of the health department’s response to the storm. The site was an appropriate one: in the first few days of the Sandy, the medical center’s emergency room treated close to 2,000 patients with storm-related medical and mental health emergencies. A key roundtable participant was Nicole Lurie, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Leading the discussion was New Jersey’s Health Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd.

2-1-1 Call Centers Are Lifelines During Hurricane Sandy and Beyond
What do you call a phone number that helps assess your needs—even if that need is for heat and food, after a hurricane has destroyed your home? In New Jersey and throughout the nation, you call that number 2-1-1. A growing number of cities have established 2-1-1 call centers that connect people to essential services such as employment training, help for an older parent, addiction prevention and affordable housing options. During Hurricane Sandy, the call centers also directed people to shelters, food, government resources, and, if needed, a mental health counselor to listen and comfort. In the aftermath of the storm calls to the service have increased at least 400 percent, says Laura Zink Marx, director of operations for the NJ 2-1-1 Partnership and chair of the 2-1-1US Steering committee, a volunteer role. The New Jersey 2-1-1 Partnership is a subsidiary of the United Way of New Jersey.

Getting Ready for Hurricane Sandy: A Conversation on the Role of Public Health in Preparedness
Hurricane Sandy could be the biggest storm to hit the United States mainland in recent history, and some are calling the storm unprecedented. The storm poses a major threat to portions of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and residents from New England to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and eastern Ohio are being urged to prepare. Public health departments play a critical role in preparing and responding to disasters, particularly in galvanizing work across sectors. Earlier this Fall, NewPublicHealth spoke with Umair Shah, MD, Deputy Director of Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services in the Houston, Texas area, about partnerships for preparedness, including how public health and medical and response teams can work together.

Is Gun Violence a Social Disease?
In the wake of yet one more high-profile shooting this week, at Texas A&M University, the Associated Press profiled the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, which is calling for a public health approach to reducing gun violence, in the same way that public health has tackled such issues as motor vehicle deaths, tobacco and alcohol.  "The greater toll is not from these clusters but from endemic violence, the stuff that occurs every day and doesn't make the headlines," says Garen J. Wintemute, MD, MPH, the program’s director.

Joplin Remembered, Lessons Learned
Late in the afternoon on May 22, 2011, a multiple vortex tornado struck Joplin, Mo., a city of about 50,000 people. The tornado and its aftermath left 161 dead and more than 900 injured along with the destruction of thousands of homes, businesses, schools, and one of the community’s major health care facilities, St. John’s Medical Center. Yesterday marked a day of reflection on the anniversary of the deadly tornado. Residents gathered to commemorate the losses, but also to focus on what's next on the continued path to recovery, reports the Associated Press. We also reflect on our coverage of the events at Joplin and the efforts of public health and preparedness professionals to both recover and capture lessons learned in preparedness:

Emergency Preparedness: A Blended Emphasis on Collaboration
Public health and health care preparedness experts met together at the 2012 Joint Preparedness Conference, where a major focus was greater collaboration between agencies and partners throughout the federal government to achieve maximum public benefit. The conference was sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (OPHPR) and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Both offices award annual preparedness grants to all fifty states, several large cities and all U.S. territories, but previously required grantees to apply and report separately. The conference, which also included representatives from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers (ASTHO), the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) and other partners, brought the experts from both funding streams into the same room along with the project managers who handle both health care and public health.

Regroup, Refocus, Refresh: 2012 Public Health Preparedness Summit
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.

Upcoming Webinar: Gun Violence, Mental Illness and Firearms
The Public Health Law Research Program as well as the American Society of Law Medicine and Ethics, the Network for Public Health Law and the Public Health Law Association, hosted a webinar on Thursday, January 26 at 1 p.m., looking at laws related to mental illness and firearms. The webinar focused on what is known about the contribution of mental illness to violence and considered the implications of research literature for law and policy that seek to limit firearms access for people with mental disorders who may pose a danger to themselves or others. The presentation discussed research findings on whether current federal and state firearms restrictions reduce gun violence, and laid out an agenda for needed future research. NewPublicHealth spoke with Jeffrey Swanson, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, and a presenter for the webinar.

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