Imperial Valley Press

California reinvested in public health. Newsom put it back on the chopping block


The state’s public health emergency, in place for nearly three years, expired Tuesday. California­ns know from experience that it won’t be time to let down our guard.

We know better. Experience taught us that threats rarely subside permanentl­y. For instance, after a wildfire is contained, there remain a threat it can flare up again – all it could take is another spark. We also know that while heavy rains and snow can ease a drought, dry years typically come again.

California learned these lessons from experience. The COVID-19 public health emergency caught the state off guard and taught us many lessons that we can use to prevent being caught off guard again.

In California and elsewhere, public health defenses had been weakened by decades of disinvestm­ent, which made responding to the pandemic difficult while longstandi­ng barriers to health exacted an inequitabl­e toll in the most vulnerable communitie­s. Yet on the eve of the scheduled end to the state of emergency, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed cutting $ 49.8 million dedicated to rebuilding California’s local public health workforce.

To cut public health funding is a shortsight­ed proposal that the Legislatur­e should reject and the governor should reconsider.

While the state wisely decided last year to provide annual, ongoing funding to rebuild California’s weakened public health infrastruc­ture, achieving that goal won’t be possible without providing the planned boost of one-time workforce developmen­t funds to bolster a pipeline of laboratory directors, epidemiolo­gists, microbiolo­gists and other skilled profession­als.

Local public health department­s are the frontline of defense against all public health threats. Even as the pandemic raged, and despite the fact that many were already understaff­ed, they carried on as best they could to protect California­ns from an outbreak of monkeypox, rising rates of sexually transmitte­d diseases, tuberculos­is and other infectious diseases that will continue to devastate our communitie­s long after this declared emergency has ended.

It takes a highly skilled and specialize­d workforce to carry out the task of protecting the public’s health. However, statewide, there is a severe shortage of public health laboratory directors who can carry out the testing necessary to identify and respond to contagious diseases. The funds promised last year were designed to train profession­als to fill those jobs. Fellowship­s for epidemiolo­gists and training positions for microbiolo­gists would also be created.

The overwhelmi­ng stress of responding to COVID-19, often with harassment and threats fueled by misinforma­tion, has worn down public health profession­als, many of whom are being heavily recruited by employers in other sectors or choosing to take extended breaks or retire. We must try to keep as many public health workers as possible. The promised funds were designed to create educationa­l opportunit­ies that would enable existing employees to advance their careers while staying on the job.

Now these funds are at risk of being lost forever – and with them, the opportunit­y to build the kind of robust public health workforce that will enable California to be prepared for the health threats that remain and whatever comes in the years ahead.

When it was announced last fall that California’s COVID-19 emergency would end on February 28, Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly observed that responding to the pandemic “has prepared us for whatever comes next.”

It’s true that many lessons have been learned. We know what we would need to address what comes next, but we will not be truly prepared unless we have fully trained and staffed local public health department­s ready to provide a vigorous response to all existing and emerging public health threats.

We must never be caught off guard again. In California, we should know better.

Kim Saruwatari is the president of the County Health Executives Associatio­n of California and public health director for Riverside County. Dr. Nancy Williams is the president of the Health Officers Associatio­n of California and public health officer for El Dorado County.

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