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NC Public Health Departments Called Overworked, Underfunded

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More than two-thirds of local health departments in the United States provide adult and childhood immunizations, communicable-disease control, community outreach and education, and more. (Adobe Stock)
More than two-thirds of local health departments in the United States provide adult and childhood immunizations, communicable-disease control, community outreach and education, and more. (Adobe Stock)
 By Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC - Producer, Contact
March 11, 2021

OXFORD, N.C. -- North Carolina has spent fewer and fewer dollars on public health over the past decade, and local health officials say inconsistent funding has led to reduced staff and resources, which likely worsened the fallout from the pandemic.

Data from Kaiser Health News show spending for the state's 85 local health departments dipped by more than 27% between 2010 and 2018.

Lisa Macon Harrison, vice president for the National Association of County and City Health Officials and health director for Granville-Vance Public Health, said most departments rely on a patchwork of disease-specific grant funding and federal dollars from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There's also not a full appreciation of the mandated services and restrictions our system asks of us, and the lack of flexibility," Harrison pointed out. "We have to sometimes be able to pivot and be as nimble as we'd like to be in situations like we're in now, where we are managing change every single week."

According to research by Trust for America's Health, public health represented just 2.5% of all U.S. health spending in 2017.

The report also found, nationwide, public-health surveillance infrastructure for detecting infectious diseases and environmental threats hasn't kept up with current technologies and are in dire need of upgrades.

Meanwhile, the state's population grew to an estimated 10.5 million people as of July 1, 2019, the fourth year in a row North Carolina has grown by more than 100,000 people, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census.

Jason Baisden, senior program officer for the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, said policymakers should view public health as a critical part of the state's healthcare safety-net infrastructure.

"Investments today in our public health infrastructure and things like housing have dividends for improved health," Baisden asserted. "And we believe, lower cost, in the long-term, and it's a discussion that North Carolina and North Carolinians need to have."

Harrison noted she's grateful more residents are becoming aware of the services their local health departments provide as COVID-19 vaccinations ramp up, but she argued communities need long-term, sustainable solutions.

"But it also calls our policymakers to action to make sure that we are able to not only survive as an infrastructure through this pandemic response and vaccination program, but that we thrive enough to prevent it from happening again," Harrison contended.

She pointed out in addition to meeting residents' basic health needs and providing immunizations, public-health departments work to prevent the start and spread of outbreaks, monitor food safety in restaurants and other public places, keep drinking water clean, and respond to natural disasters and emergencies.

Disclosure: Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust contributes to our fund for reporting on Early Childhood Education, Health Issues, Livable Wages/Working Families, and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
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