I’m with the Kentucky Air National Guard and recently returned from a humanitarian mission in Senegal, West Africa, to fight Ebola. We established a cargo hub to distribute medical supplies to African countries treating patients. I’m proud to serve our country and be at the forefront for fighting Ebola. I volunteered for this mission because it was essential to provide public health resources not only at home, but abroad as well. Since I’m a resident of Florida, I understand that we are merely one flight away from infectious diseases being introduced into the population. And, I’m a firm believer that we should be assisting with public health efforts globally to any country or continent in need.
For months, local health departments have been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare for and respond to the virus at home. As Congress faces an important decision about how to continue government funding into next year, I urge them to approve emergency funding for Ebola without delay.
We hope this emergency funding will end the outbreak in West Africa, but also bolster domestic public health and health systems readiness; test and procure Ebola vaccines and therapeutics; and help accelerate our capacity to prevent Ebola — and the spread of other infectious diseases — that threatens health.
More than half of local health departments rely solely on federal funding for public health preparedness through the CDC, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, and through the nation’s 1,000 Medical Reserve Corps units. They are the community’s first response during disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and acts of terrorism. You may not always see the work they do, but local health departments are on call 24/7, and we are all safer and healthier because of them.
Local health departments are on the front lines monitoring travelers from nations that have widespread Ebola outbreaks. They enforce isolation and quarantine of contagious individuals; investigate other people who may have come in contact with the contagious individual; and work with hospital officials, emergency management services, and law enforcement to encourage rigor around infection control practices.
But uniquely, local health departments educate and inform the public about how to protect themselves. Health officials advise their communities about when and how to take emergency measures. They establish call centers, direct public education, disseminate accurate information, and calm public anxiety.
This support helps them detect and stop outbreaks of Ebola and other diseases, like measles, tuberculosis, and salmonella. It also helps local health departments prepare to respond to public health emergencies like pandemics, severe weather, acts of terrorism, and natural and human-caused disasters by providing the necessary resources to develop plans, conduct trainings and exercises, and secure lifesaving medicine and equipment, such as shelter supplies, vaccinations, and first-aid equipment.
Local health departments also mobilize community partners to ensure patient care is informed by strict public health guidelines; advise local leaders on public health laws; ensure that critical information is shared with state and federal agencies, hospitals, providers and other stakeholders; and importantly, coordinate response activities before an emergency occurs.
It is also important to acknowledge that Ebola is not the only infectious disease threatening the public today. Enterovirus D-68 and seasonal influenza are also top priorities, not to mention West Nile virus, MERS-CoV, Chikungunya, and Dengue fever at various times of the year.
Unfortunately, budget cuts at all levels of government are forcing many local health departments to operate at a diminished capacity. That means there is fewer staff to prepare for and respond to disasters and public health emergencies, and fewer trained professionals to detect disease and prevent it from spreading. The response to even a handful of Ebola cases could seriously strain an already thinly-stretched workforce.
Our nation’s local health departments shoulder a great deal of responsibility. Congress can significantly help in two important ways. Approve emergency funding for Ebola, and pass a fiscal 2015 spending bill that provides sustained funding for state and local health department preparedness programs.
Congress has time to do the right thing for public health before they adjourn later this month.
Swannie Jett, DrPH is president-elect of the National Association of County and City Health Officials and Executive Director of the Seminole County Health Department in Florida.