Report: Utah not fully prepared for health emergency
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — In the event of a disaster, Utah would most likely be able to respond to the needs of residents.
But there is a small chance, depending on the type of emergency, that officials wouldn't be prepared, according to a national health emergency preparedness report released Wednesday.
Utah scored six out of 10 on key indicators of public health preparedness, losing out on aspects largely out of the control of the Utah Department of Health, said Paul Patrick, director of the state's Bureau of Emergency Medical Services and Preparedness.
The "Ready or Not? Protecting the Public from Diseases, Disasters and Bioterrorism" report struck points from Utah's overall score for the state's inability to maintain or increase funding for public health programs; for not meeting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services goal of vaccinating 90 percent of toddlers ages 19 months to 35 months against whooping cough; for not requiring Medicaid to cover the copay for a flu shot; and for not having a complete plan to deal with potential extreme weather.
Just two states complied with the survey's requirement of a climate change adaptation plan. Patrick said such a plan is in the works in Utah and should be completed by next year.
"The positives are the things we did get points for," he said.
The state was lauded for its response readiness and ability to notify and immediately assemble within an hour, as well as for its "community resiliency," or availability of written evacuation and relocation plans.
Utah also earned points for being accredited by the Emergency Management Accreditation Program, for participating in a nurse licensure compact allowing the state to share personnel resources; for its capacity to staff a public health laboratory for a long period of time; and for increasing or maintaining an ability to respond to various chemical threats.
Patrick said the state is well-prepared for just about anything, but new situations arise all the time, and it is hard to know what Utah will have to face.
"We can't plan for just one catastrophic event here," he said. "Where we are located, we have to expect that an earthquake could happen, as well as flooding and other issues."
Patrick's department relies heavily on federal grants and government funding to stay afloat, which he said has been tough as of late. But due to keen handling of decreasing funds, stores of resources remain at the ready throughout the state, and personnel have practiced various scenarios over and over in order to ensure the safety of as many residents as possible, in any situation.
In all, 29 states cut funding to public health initiatives, according to the report. Some states, including those surrounding New Jersey, do not have the proper nurse licensure contracts in place, which precluded assistance in the events that unfolded following superstorm Sandy earlier this year.
Forty-eight states, including Utah, did not meet the federal standard for immunizing babies against whooping cough, which has been especially prevalent this year.
"(Utah) did really great to get 82 percent of that age group vaccinated," Patrick said.
The goal is 90 percent, but additional funding would be necessary to reach outlying populations, as well as forge education outreach, he said.
Continued cuts "erodes progress already made," said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health Foundation, which issued the report with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
When health departments are forced to cut jobs and capabilities, states are not as prepared, Levi said.
In recent years, states have had to respond to various conditions, such as flooding, outbreaks of West Nile virus, ice and wind storms, and the H1N1 influenza — all of which required prompt response by public health departments.
New threats present themselves each year, as evidenced with destructive tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and devastating flooding along the East Coast due to superstorm Sandy. Officials there tested and urged caution around contaminated water supplies, ensured access to food and dealt with toxic mold in many cases, Levi said.
Despite the weather events, flu pandemic and foodborne outbreaks, "for some reason, as a country, we haven't learned that we need to bolster and maintain a consistent level of health emergency preparedness," he said.
"Investments made after Sept. 11, the anthrax attacks and Hurricane Katrina led to dramatic improvements, but now budget cuts and complacency are the biggest threats we face," Levi said.
Patrick said the report is a good indicator of "where we need to do better. And we're working on it. We know what we need to do."
A lot of what the state does to prepare for an emergency is invisible to the public, he said, but in a time of need, decades of attention will be focused on Utahns to help them pull through just about any situation.
"We'll come together in a disaster," Patrick said. "I know people would be amazed looking back at the response."
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