While Virginia ranked in the top tier of states for being prepared for a range of health emergencies from natural disasters to manmade incidents, the nation got less than a glowing review for its COVID-19 response in a report from the Trust for America’s Health.
If the United States had had a more adequate public health infrastructure when the pandemic began, “lives would have been saved and economic upheaval lessened,” according to “Ready or Not 2022: Protecting the Public’s Health from Diseases, Disasters and Bioterrorism.”
The report states that misinformation, mistrust in government and political division have resulted in policies and actions that are both anti-health and anti-vaccine. America’s lack of investment in health quality for all contributed to high rates of chronic disease among some more vulnerable populations. And, confusing and disjointed leadership and messages led to disparate responses in every state, the report said.
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It also cited the health care system, which operates near capacity on many days, saying it was not prepared for the multiple case surges during the pandemic.
The annual report looks at how states respond in the face of emergency. Virginia health and hospital officials singled out the commonwealth’s placement, for the third year in a row, in the top tier.
Dr. Colin Greene, acting state health commissioner, credited the hard work of thousands of Virginia Department of Health employees.
“Our ongoing attention to preparedness means that when we are faced with situations such as this pandemic or severe weather events or calculated attacks, we have systems, guidance, relationships and community partnerships in place to launch a comprehensive response,” Greene said.
Hospitals are also “critical partners” in the state’s emergency preparedness infrastructure, said Sean T. Connaughton, CEO of the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association.
“The pandemic has been a real-world stress test of our health care delivery system and its level of emergency preparedness,” he said. “While there are always opportunities to improve, it is gratifying to see that Virginia’s commitment to preparedness continues to place us among the top states in the nation.”
But in a special section of the report on lessons from the pandemic, including what could be done to save more lives during the next public health emergency, the tone was markedly more somber.
It states that public health officials had warned about their “dangerously inadequate” infrastructure for decades and had asked Congress “to fund public health on a sustained basis and not just in response to an emergency.” Lack of funding contributed to “understaffed and overworked health departments using out-of-date technologies.”
Those departments are even more understaffed, two years into the pandemic, as a result of a lack of support and “outright threats” against them, the report said.
“The nation’s public health data systems are woefully dated and not up to the task of tracking an infectious disease outbreak on the scale of a pandemic,” according to the report.
It cited the need for increased, flexible and continued spending for public health; a strong, coordinated federal response; modernized systems to collect data and track diseases; and modern public health labs capable of increasing their capacity during surges.
The report also called for a diverse and highly skilled public health workforce. According to the Beaumont Foundation and the Public Health National Center for Innovation, state and local public health departments need approximately 80 percent more full-time staff to meet the nation’s basic public health needs.
During the pandemic, more than 1.65 million Virginians have been infected with COVID-19 and 19,466 have died, according to state data. In the Rappahannock Area Health District, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford, there have been 73,472 infections and 605 deaths.
The local health district continues to report deaths that occurred during the omicron surge. Another 11 deaths have been added to the toll in the last week.
Cathy Dyson: 540 / 374-5425