Six takeaways of the KHN/AP public health investigation

FILE - In this Saturday, May 23, 2020, file photo, a man wearing a face mask is reflected in a mirror as he waits inside his car to be tested for COVID-19 while volunteers take registration information in Annandale, Va. COVID-19 testing was available from Fairfax County at no cost and without a doctor's order. Hundreds of people had lined up in cars and on foot by 10 a.m. Officials planned on testing about 1,000 people from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Local and state public health departments in the United States work to ensure that people have healthy water to drink, their restaurants don’t serve contaminated food and outbreaks of infectious diseases don’t spread. Those departments now find themselves at the forefront of fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

But years of budget and staffing cuts have left them unprepared to face the worst health crisis in a century.

KHN, also known as Kaiser Health News, and The Associated Press sought to understand the scale of the cuts and how the decades-long starvation of public health departments by federal, state and local governments has affected the system meant to protect the nation’s health.

Six takeaways from the KHN-AP investigation:

SPENDING DROP

Since 2010, spending for state public health departments has dropped by 16% per capita, and for local health departments by 18%. Local public health spending varies widely by county or town, even within the same state.

DISAPPEARING JOBS

At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession, leaving a skeletal workforce in what was once viewed as one of the world’s top public health systems.

COMPARING POLICING MONEY

Nearly two-thirds of Americans live in counties that spend more than twice as much on policing as they spend on nonhospital health care, which includes public health.

STATES' PER-PERSON SPENDING RANGE

More than three-quarters of Americans live in states that spend less than $100 per person annually on public health. Spending ranges from $32 in Louisiana to $263 in Delaware.

CHALLENGES FOR PUBLIC HEALTH WORKERS

Some public health workers earn so little that they qualify for government assistance. During the pandemic, many have found themselves disrespected, ignored or even vilified. At least 31 state and local public health leaders have announced their resignations, retired or been fired in 15 states since April.

MONEY SQUEEZE DURING THE PANDEMIC

States, cities and counties whose tax revenues have declined during the current recession have begun laying off and furloughing public health staffers. At least 15 states have cut health department budgets or positions, or were actively considering such cuts in June, even as coronavirus cases surged in several states.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

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This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and KHN (Kaiser Health News), which is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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