Opinion

A Public Health Call to Arms

By Brian Castrucci
November 2, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

Outrage and division are driving voter turnout in this year’s presidential election. As the pandemic rages on, one side fumes over the threat of a prolonged shutdown that could choke all chances of a quick economic recovery, while the other is appalled at a president who scoffs at basic mask-wearing and dismisses COVID-19’s brutal human toll. Yet voters on both sides of the aisle would be wise to channel some of this anger and frustration into one simple question as they cast their ballot in the final days of this election: How did we get here in the first place — and how do we prevent it from happening again?   

We spend more than $700 billion annually on defense to protect our nation from potential foreign threats. It would be unconscionable to send American soldiers into battle under-manned and unarmed. And yet, that is exactly what we have done. We sent hundreds of thousands of our public health workers to war against COVID-19 without the proper equipment, resources and manpower to win. This virus has already claimed more than 225,000 lives in the United States, which exceeds our death tolls from World War I, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined. For this pandemic, Americans deserved a stronger, better-funded army. Shame on us.   

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget is less than 1.5 percent of the Pentagon budget, even though it directly impacts the daily health and well-being of more than 330 million Americans. For years, public health officials warned that we needed to be better prepared for a global pandemic. Few listened. Now, state and local health departments are doing everything they can to slow and stop the virus’s spread, but their hands have been tied. With extremely limited resources, they are bracing themselves for the colossal challenge of rapidly and effectively distributing a vaccine to diverse and remote communities across the country. Our public health workers are doing a herculean job, but we cannot ask for the impossible. As they wait for emergency relief and long-term funding to both mediate the devastating impact of COVID-19 and fortify our nation against the next pandemic, more people are dying.    

The irony of this national tragedy is that despite the ongoing politicization of masks and basic public health recommendations, the issue of public health has gained strong bipartisan consensus. According to a recent public health poll, support for local health departments has risen from 56 percent in 2018 to 73 percent in 2020.

Nevertheless, despite growing support, we continue to underfund our critical public health infrastructure, which includes our local health departments, public health workers, training, equipment and supplies. In the past 15 years, investment in public health has decreased by 25 percent, falling from $900 million to $675 million between 2005 and 2020, while our state and local public health workforce has lost more than 40,000 positions since the 2008 H1N1 outbreak. 

Today, as we scramble for quick but necessary fixes to this pandemic — including funding for widespread testing, tracing, vaccine distribution and trillion-dollar emergency relief – we continue to miss the bigger picture. Public health is like the foundation of our home — it’s often ignored until the cracks threaten a complete collapse. We must not wait for that to happen. Healthy communities and a vibrant economy can only be built with a strong foundation. Our leaders can no longer ignore the need for a robust, modern public health infrastructure.   

According to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, the pandemic is likely to cost us nearly $8 trillion over the next decade. Just a small fraction of this investment would have better prepared our public health departments to fight this virus and save thousands of lives. And still, even amid the deadliest pandemic in more than a century, not a single candidate or moderator raised the importance of public health funding in the three nationally televised debates.   

The neglect of our public health infrastructure is one of the single largest threats to America’s long-term prosperity. It is up to us, the American voters, to channel our public outrage into supporting public health. Before casting your ballot, find out where policymakers, elected officials and political candidates stand on public health funding, and vote accordingly. We owe this to the more than 225,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19. We owe it to their families, our children and future generations. Let’s vote for health – resilient communities and a revitalized economy depend on it. 

 

Dr. Brian Castrucci is president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy focused solely on state and local public health.  

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