Latino, Black Neighborhoods Struggle With COVID Test Disparities

A Latino cook whose co-worker got COVID-19 waited in his truck for a free swab at a rare testing event in a low-income neighborhood in Phoenix. A Hispanic tile installer queued up after two weeks of self-isolation while his father battled the coronavirus in intensive care. He didn’t know his dad would die days later.
As the pandemic explodes in diverse states like Arizona and Florida, people in communities of color who have been exposed to the virus are struggling to get tested. While people nationwide complain about appointments being overbooked or waiting hours to be seen, getting a test can be even harder in America’s poorer, Hispanic and Black neighborhoods, far from middle-class areas where most chain pharmacies and urgent care clinics offering tests are found.  
“There really isn’t any testing around here,” said Juan Espinosa, who went with his brother Enrique to the recent drive-up testing event in Phoenix’s largely Latino Maryvale neighborhood after a fellow construction worker was suspected of having COVID-19. “We don’t know anywhere else to go.”
Hundreds of people lined up last week for another large-scale testing event in a different low-income area of Phoenix that’s heavily Hispanic and Black.
Arizona — the nation’s leader in new confirmed infections per capita over the past two weeks — and its minority neighborhoods are just starting to feel what New York and other East Coast and Midwestern communities experienced several months ago, said Mahasin Mujahid, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health.  
“It’s the perfect storm as this hits unlevel playing fields all across the U.S.,” said Mujahid, a social epidemiologist who studies health in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Public health officials say widespread testing to rapidly identify and isolate infected people can help ensure residents of underserved neighborhoods get care while slowing the virus’s spread.
“Pandemics expose the inequalities in our health care system,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a surgeon at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “What is needed is to make testing free and as available as possible.
“Outreach to the Hispanic population, the Black community, to immigrants, the most vulnerable, unprotected people is critical for public health,” with a national response being ideal, he said.  
But President Donald Trump’s administration has delegated responsibility for testing to states that have stitched together a patchwork of responses, forcing private foundations and nonprofit community health organizations to fill in the gaps and ensure people of color are reached.
“If you just set up the testing sites in wealthy communities, you cannot rein this in,” said Dr. Usama Bilal, assistant professor at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health in Philadelphia, where Black doctors recently won city funding  for testing in African American neighborhoods.
When Florida officials were slow to roll out testing in the migrant community of Immokalee, the nonprofit Coalition of Immokalee Workers called on the international aid group Doctors Without Borders for help.
The Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation in Chicago pushed hard before getting support from the city’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team  to deliver free, widespread testing in that Black neighborhood.  
“It hit the African American communities very, very hard,” said the corporation’s executive director, Carlos Nelson. “We have since had great success in getting people tested and bringing numbers down. ”
In Arizona, the free drive-up testing June 27 drew nearly 1,000 people and was just the second big event of its kind in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Maryvale.
The first event, held June 20 by the privately funded Equality Health Foundation, drew criticism when much larger crowds than expected showed up, and some people waited for as long as 13 hours. Organizers had decided to take in those without appointments.
“It shows that there is an unavailability of testing if there is that kind of demand,” said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and former head of the state Department of Health Services.
Equality Health spokesman Tomás León acknowledged that “we were really overwhelmed” when so many showed up for the first round. The results from that event, while incomplete, showed about 24% of tests were positive, he said. Arizona’s positive rate statewide had risen to 25.9% as of Sunday for the past week, which is the highest in the nation, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
The scene was more orderly a week later, after Equality Health doubled staff and nasal swabs and refused to accept people without appointments.  
Arizona officials have since committed to increasing testing sites, especially in Maryvale and other areas of west and south Phoenix that are more than 80% Latino. Testing sites also are scarce in a part of the city where some neighborhoods are more than 15% Black.  
“We need more tests, and we need more efficiency around tests,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said in late June. “No one should have to wait hours and hours for tests to be conducted.”
But as of Sunday, Arizona was 38th among all states for the number of tests performed with results per 1,000 people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.  
Like Black people, Latinos have high rates of health problems such as diabetes that make them more susceptible to the virus. And they often live in family groups that make the virus easier to spread.
Carmen Heredia, CEO of Valle del Sol Community Health, said an entire family of 20 recently took advantage of free testing in the small Latino and Indigenous town of Guadalupe, bordering Phoenix.
Carlos Sandoval, 45, said his whole family needed testing after exposure to his 65-year-old father, who got COVID-19 and was susceptible because of a kidney transplant six years ago. His mother tested positive but didn’t have symptoms.  
As Sandoval waited to be tested late last month, his father, was on oxygen at the hospital. His dad, also named Carlos, died June 30.
 
The family never imagined COVID-19 would touch them, he said.
 
“We, Hispanics, don’t believe the virus is very important until someone we know gets it,” Sandoval said.

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Czech Volunteers Develop Functioning Lung Ventilator іn Days

Tomas Kapler knew nothing about ventilators — he’s an online business consultant, not an engineer or a medical technician. But when he saw that shortages of the vital machines had imperiled critically ill COVID-19 patients in northern Italy, he was moved to action.”It was a disturbing feeling for me that because of a lack of equipment the doctors had to decide whether a person gets a chance to live,” Kapler said. “That seemed so horrific to me that it was an impulse to do something.”And so he did. “I just said to myself: ‘Can we simply make the ventilators?'” he said.  Working around the clock, he brought together a team of 30 Czechs to develop a fully functional ventilator — Corovent. And they did it in a matter of days.Kapler is a member of an informal group of volunteers formed by IT companies and experts who offered to help the state fight the pandemic. The virus struck here slightly later than in western Europe but the number of infected was rising and time was running out.”It seemed that on the turn of March and April, we might be in the same situation as Italy,” Kapler said.  Ventilators had become a precious commodity. Their price was skyrocketing and so was demand that the traditional makers were unable to immediately meet.”Corovent” lung ventilators, manufactured in Trebic, Czech Republic, are being tested, June 17, 2020.Components for the ventilators were also in critically short supply. So Kapler said he set out to “make a ventilator from the parts that are used in common machines.”  A crowd-funding campaign ensured the necessary finances in just hours.Kapler approached Karel Roubik, professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Czech Technical University for help. He, in turn, assembled colleagues through Skype, while his post-graduate student tested the new design in their lab in Kladno, west of Prague.They had a working prototype in five days, something that would normally take a year.Roubik said their simple design makes the machine reliable, inexpensive, and easy to operate and mass produce.  A group of volunteer pilots flew their planes to deliver anything needed. And then MICO, an energy and chemical company based in Trebic, 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Kladno, offered to do the manufacturing.Flights between the two places helped fine-tune the production line in a few weeks.  “I didn’t do anything more than those people who were making the face masks,” said MICO’s chief executive, Jiri Denner. “They did the maximum they could. And I did the maximum I could.”With the certification for emergency use in the European Union approved, the ventilator was ready in April — but it was not needed in the Czech Republic, which had managed to contain the outbreak.MICO has submitted a request for approval for emergency use in the United States, Brazil, Russia and other countries. Meanwhile, they’ve applied for EU certification for common hospital use.”Originally, we thought it would be just an emergency ventilator for the Czech Republic,” Kapler said. “But it later turned out that the ventilators will be needed in the entire world.”Kapler looks back at the effort with satisfaction.”I had to quit my job and I have been without pay for several months,” he said. “But otherwise, it was mostly positive for me. I’ve met many fantastic people who are willing to help.”Or to quote the slogan printed on the ventilator’s box: “Powered by Czech heart.”
 

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Divers in Mexico Discover Ancient Mining Operation

The practice of mining precious metals and stones from the Earth dates as far back as recorded human history. The prized possessions of previous eras give clues to a culture’s technological advancement. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports on a mineral-mining operation recently discovered in underwater caves in Mexico.

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Botswana Investigates Mystery Deaths of At Least 275 Elephants

Botswana is investigating a growing number of unexplained deaths of elephants, having confirmed 275 had died, up from 154 two weeks ago, the government said Thursday. The dead elephants were first spotted months ago in the Okavango Panhandle region, and the authorities say they have since been trying to discover the cause. Poaching has been ruled out as the cause of death, as the carcasses were found intact. “Three laboratories in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Canada have been identified to process the samples taken from the dead elephants,” the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism said in a statement. In a report prepared for the government and seen by Reuters, Elephants Without Borders (EWB), a conservation organization, said that its aerial surveys showed that elephants of all ages appeared to be dying. The group counted 169 dead elephants on May 25, and another 187 on June 14, according to the report. The directors of EWB did not immediately respond to phone calls or text messages seeking comment on the report. “Several live elephants that we observed appeared to be weak, lethargic and emaciated. Some elephants appeared disorientated, had difficulty walking, showed signs of partial paralysis or a limp,” the report said. “One elephant was observed walking in circles, unable to change direction although being encouraged by other herd members.” The report said urgent action was needed to establish if the deaths were caused by disease or poisoning. Africa’s overall elephant population is declining due to poaching, but Botswana, home to almost a third of the continent’s elephants, has seen numbers grow to 130,000 from 80,000 in the late 1990s. However, they are seen as a nuisance by some farmers, whose crops have been destroyed. President Mokgweetsi Masisi lifted a five-year ban on big game hunting in May last year but the hunting season failed to take off in April as global travel restrictions meant hunters from many coronavirus-hit countries could not enter Botswana.  
 

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Does Wearing a Mask Pose Any Health Risks?

Does wearing a mask pose any health risks?No, not for most people. Babies and toddlers should not wear masks because they could suffocate. The same goes for anyone who has trouble removing a mask without help.Others can wear masks without risking their health, according to experts, despite false rumors to the contrary.In areas where COVID-19 is spreading, health experts agree that wearing masks or other face coverings in public helps reduce the risk of spreading the virus when people can’t socially distance by staying 6 feet apart.The coronavirus mainly spreads through droplets that are emitted when people talk, laugh, sing, cough and sneeze. Masks lower the likelihood of those droplets reaching other people. Even if you don’t have symptoms, you could be carrying the virus and could spread it.When it’s humid outside, it could feel like it’s harder to breathe if you’re not used to wearing a mask, said Benjamin Neuman, a professor of biology at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. But he said masks don’t meaningfully decrease oxygen in the body.“The body is quite good at adjusting to keep oxygen levels where they need to be,” he said.There’s also no evidence that the use of masks causes fungal or bacterial infections, according to Davidson Hamer, an infectious disease expert at Boston University. Disposable face masks are meant to be used once, then thrown in the garbage. With cloth masks, it’s a good idea to wash them regularly.Wearing a mask may be uncomfortable, but health officials say you should resist any urge to touch your face. That could bring germs from your hands into your nose, mouth or eyes.

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New Study Shows Fireworks May Present Health Hazard

A new study indicates that fireworks, so common in the United States as the July 4th Independence Day holiday approaches, may be harmful to humans and animals.The study, conducted by researchers at the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine and published Thursday in the Particle and Fibre Toxicology Journal, indicates that common fireworks displays and other commercially available fireworks that explode in the air release heavy metals such as titanium, copper, strontium and even lead particulates into the air.The study showed the metals, when breathed into the lungs, can be harmful to humans and other mammals, and could cause long-term health problems.The NYU researchers say that previous studies on firework safety focused on physical injuries that might be suffered as fireworks explode.  But the study’s co-author, environmental medicine expert Terry Gordon said they wanted to know whether the toxins released by the fireworks posed a significant risk.  Gordon tells the science publication Inverse that their team gathered 12 brands of fireworks commonly sold in the United States and set them off in a sealed chamber and collected the emitted particles.  They then exposed human cells and living mice to the particles to test them for toxicity.  They also studied 14 years of air quality samples taken across the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency. They found levels of toxic metals in the air were higher in samples taken closer to holidays associated with fireworks – Independence Day and, often, New Years.  The researchers say they hope the study can be used to find safer materials to use in fireworks. But they also recommend that all home fireworks be set off outside, that people stay upwind from fireworks displays when possible, look for fireworks that do not use lead, and save fireworks for special events.

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‘Death Cafes’ Help Ease Grief, Loss in Time of Coronavirus

Panic attacks, trouble breathing, relapses that have sent her to bed for 14 hours at a time: At 35, Marissa Oliver has been forced to deal with the specter of death on COVID-19’s terms, yet conversations about her illness, fear and anxiety haven’t been easy.That’s why she headed onto Zoom to attend a Death Cafe, a gathering of strangers willing to explore mortality and its impact on the living, preferably while sipping tea and eating cake.”In the Death Cafe, no one winces,” said Oliver, who was diagnosed with the virus in March. “Now, I’m writing down everything in my life that I want to achieve.”Death Cafes, part of a broader “death-positive” movement to encourage more open discussion about grief, trauma and loss, are held around the world, in nearly 100 countries. While many haven’t migrated online in the pandemic, others have.The global virus toll and the social isolation it has extracted have opened old, unresolved wounds for some. Others attending virtual Death Cafes are coping with fresh losses from COVID-19, cancer and other illnesses. Still more bring metaphorical death to the circles: the end of friendships, shattered romances or chronic illness, as Oliver has endured.FILE – Robb Kushner, center, talks with Alicia Evans during a Death Cafe discussion in a New York City apartment, Oct. 8, 2013. Death Cafes, where people talk freely about death-related issues, are spreading through the U.S. and the world.At one recent virtual Death Cafe, a 33-year-old man spoke of refusing to pack up his wife’s belongings six months after her death from cancer. A woman who underwent a heart transplant 31 years ago described her peace with the decision not to have another, as her donated organ deteriorates.For Jen Carl in Washington, D.C., the pandemic has intensified memories of her 11 years of sexual abuse as a child, her father’s drug and alcohol abuse, and his death about six years ago. She said sharing and listening to the stories of others in Death Cafes have helped.”I feel just really so at peace and relieved when I’m in circles where folks are talking about real things in life and not trying to move away from the uncomfortable,” Carl told a recent group.”I’ve been on a couple of Zoom calls with close friends who aren’t worried about talking about difficult things most of the time, but then when COVID’s come up, it’s like, `Oh, well, we’re partying right now. Let’s not talk about that,’ and that just triggers me so much.”Inspired by Swiss sociologist and anthropologist Bernard Crettaz, who organized his first “cafe mortel” in 2004, the late British web developer Jon Underwood honed the model and held the first Death Cafe in his London home in 2011. The idea spread quickly and the meetups in restaurants and cafes, homes and parks now span Europe and North America, reaching into Australia, the Caribbean and Japan.Underwood died suddenly as a result of undiagnosed leukemia in 2017, but his wife and other relatives have carried on. They maintain a website, Deathcafe.com, where hosts post their gatherings.FILE – This photo shows an invitation to a Death Cafe discussion in New York City, Oct. 17, 2013.One important difference between Death Cafes and traditional support and bereavement groups is the range of stories. But the cafes also offer the freedom to approach the room with levity rather than stern seriousness, and extraordinary diversity: a mix of races, genders and ages, from people in the moment with terminal loved ones to those who have lost classmates or relatives to suicide.Death Cafes aren’t intended to “fix” problems and find solutions but to foster sharing as the road to support. They’re generally kept to 30 or so, meet monthly and also include the “death curious,” people who aren’t dealing with loss but choose to take on the topic anyway.Psychotherapist Nancy Gershman, who specializes in grief and loss, has been hosting Death Cafes in New York since 2013, the year after they made their way to the U.S.”Death Cafes are a place where strangers meet to talk about things regarding death and dying that they can’t bring anywhere else, that they can’t bring home or to co-workers or to best friends,” she said.Registered nurse Nicole Heidbreder is a birth and end-of-life doula. She also trains others as doulas and has been hosting Death Cafes in Washington, D.C., for about five years.Heidbreder was working as a full-time hospice nurse and found that many of the families she was working with had never discussed end-of-life issues before. “I just felt it was such an absolute shame,” she said.FILE – Jane Hughes Gignoux leads a Death Cafe discussion at her home in New York City, Oct. 8, 2013.”One of the parallels between birth and death is that a little more than 100 years ago in our country, all of us would have been very well versed in what birth and death literally looked like,” she said. “We would have seen our family and neighbors do the tasks of tending to people who are giving birth or families who are losing someone. And now we simply aren’t exposed to that.”Heidbreder said the coronavirus has changed the conversation yet again. She said she shifted to offering the virtual cafes “on a weekly basis at the time of peak COVID in the country.”She now hosts people not just in the D.C. area, as she did before the pandemic, but across America, from California to North Carolina. More health care workers have shown up, too.J. Dana Trent, a professor of world religions at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina, served as a hospital chaplain in a death ward at age 25 after graduating from divinity school, assisting in 200 deaths in a year. The ordained Southern Baptist minister used her experiences in the hospital for a 2019 book, “Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life,” which offers a view of how “positive death” can be achieved.”COVID has certainly brought death to the forefront. It has brought the death-positive movement to the forefront, but we’re still scared,” Trent said. “What I’m grateful for is that COVID has awakened society to the possibility of death. None of us is getting out of here alive.”

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NASA Astronauts Take Space Walk to Upgrade ISS Batteries

NASA astronauts Chris Cassidy and Robert Behnken were once again outside the International Space Station (ISS) Wednesday on the second of two scheduled space walks to upgrade the station’s batteries.The astronauts began the project Friday, a spacewalk that was only notable because Cassidy lost a small mirror that was attached to his suit by the wrist. In an interview with the Associated Press Tuesday, Cassidy called losing the mirror “a real bummer” and couldn’t figure out how it happened. He said he just glanced down and saw it disappear into the darkness.The astronauts were also asked about the COVID-19 pandemic on earth, which they are closely watching. Both astronauts are based in Houston, where virus cases have seen a surge.  Likewise, in Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center, the launch site for the SpaceX spacecraft that brought Behnken to the ISS a month ago.Florida and Texas each have had to reimpose restrictions in response to the surges. Both astronauts had to be quarantined for several days before they left for the ISS and really did not experience any of the restriction’s others had to face, but both said they are greatly concerned about the situation on earth.Wednesday, the two are working on removing the sixth nickel-hydrogen battery outside the space station and replace it with a new lithium-ion battery and an adapter plate. The swap will upgrade the station’s power supply by replacing the batteries that store power generated by the station’s solar arrays and provide it to the microgravity laboratory when the station is not in sunlight as it circles Earth during orbital night. 

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Hollowed Out US Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus

The U.S. public health system has been starved for decades and lacks the resources to confront the worst health crisis in a century.Marshaled against a virus that has sickened at least 2.6 million in the U.S., killed more than 126,000 people and cost tens of millions of jobs and $3 trillion in federal rescue money, state and local government health workers on the ground are sometimes paid so little, they qualify for public aid.  They track the coronavirus on paper records shared via fax. Working seven-day weeks for months on end, they fear pay freezes, public backlash and even losing their jobs.  Since 2010, spending for state public health departments has dropped by 16% per capita and spending for local health departments has fallen by 18%, according to a KHN and Associated Press analysis of government spending on public health. At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession, leaving a skeletal workforce for what was once viewed as one of the world’s top public health systems.  KHN, also known as Kaiser Health News, and AP interviewed more than 150 public health workers, policymakers and experts, analyzed spending records from hundreds of state and local health departments, and surveyed statehouses. On every level, the investigation found, the system is underfunded and under threat, unable to protect the nation’s health.Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview in April that his “biggest regret” was “that our nation failed over decades to effectively invest in public health.”So when this outbreak arrived — and when, according to public health experts, the federal government bungled its response — hollowed-out state and local health departments were ill-equipped to step into the breach.  Over time, their work had received so little support that they found themselves without direction, disrespected, ignored, even vilified. The desperate struggle against COVID-19 became increasingly politicized and grew more difficult.States, cities and counties in dire straits have begun laying off and furloughing their limited staff, and even more devastation looms, as states reopen and cases surge. Historically, even when money pours in following crises such as Zika and H1N1, it disappears after the emergency subsides. Officials fear the same thing is happening now.”We don’t say to the fire department, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. There were no fires last year, so we’re going to take 30% of your budget away.’ That would be crazy, right?” said Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino, the health officer in Shawnee County, Kansas. “But we do that with public health, day in and day out.”Ohio’s Toledo-Lucas County Health Department spent $17 million, or $40 per person, in 2017.  Jennifer Gottschalk, 42, works for the county as an environmental health supervisor. When the coronavirus struck, the county’s department was so short-staffed that her duties included overseeing campground and pool inspections, rodent control and sewage programs, while also supervising outbreak preparedness for a community of more than 425,000 people.When Gottschalk and five colleagues fell ill with COVID-19, she found herself fielding calls about a COVID-19 case from her hospital bed, then working through her home isolation. She only stopped when her coughing was too severe to talk on calls.”You have to do what you have to do to get the job done,” Gottschalk said.Now, after months of working with hardly a day off, she says the job is wearing on her. So many lab reports on coronavirus cases came in, the office fax machine broke. She faces a backlash from the community over coronavirus restrictions and there are countless angry phone calls.Things could get worse; possible county budget cuts loom.  But Toledo-Lucas is no outlier. Public health ranks low on the nation’s financial priority list. 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.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, according to data provided to KHN and AP by the State Health Expenditure Dataset project.  That money represents less than 1.5% of most states’ total spending, with half of it passed down to local health departments.  The share of spending devoted to public health belies its multidimensional role. Agencies are legally bound to provide a broad range of services, from vaccinations and restaurant inspections to protection against infectious disease. Distinct from the medical care system geared toward individuals, the public health system focuses on the health of communities at large.”Public health loves to say: When we do our job, nothing happens. But that’s not really a great badge,” said Scott Becker, chief executive officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We test 97% of America’s babies for metabolic or other disorders. We do the water testing. You like to swim in the lake and you don’t like poop in there? Think of us.”But the public doesn’t see the disasters they thwart. And it’s easy to neglect the invisible.A history of deprivationThe local health department was a well-known place in the 1950s and 1960s, when Harris Pastides, president emeritus of the University of South Carolina, was growing up in New York City.”My mom took me for my vaccines. We would get our injections there for free. We would get our polio sugar cubes there for free,” said Pastides, an epidemiologist. “In those days, the health departments had a highly visible role in disease prevention.”The United States’ decentralized public health system, which matches federal funding and expertise with local funding, knowledge and delivery, was long the envy of the world, said Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.”A lot of what we’re seeing right now could be traced back to the chronic funding shortages,” Omer said. “The way we starve our public health system, the way we have tried to do public health outcomes on the cheap in this country.”In Scott County, Indiana, when preparedness coordinator Patti Hall began working at the health department 34 years ago, it ran a children’s clinic and a home health agency with several nurses and aides. But over time, the children’s clinic lost funding and closed. Medicare changes paved the way for private services to replace the home health agency. Department staff dwindled in the 1990s and early 2000s. The county was severely outgunned when rampant opioid use and needle sharing sparked an outbreak of HIV in 2015.Besides just five full-time and one part-time county public health positions, there was only one doctor in the outbreak’s epicenter of Austin. Indiana’s then-Gov. Mike Pence, now leading the nation’s coronavirus response as vice president, waited 29 days after the outbreak was announced to sign an executive order allowing syringe exchanges. At the time, a state official said that only five people from agencies across Indiana were available to help with HIV testing in the county.The HIV outbreak exploded into the worst ever to hit rural America, infecting more than 230 people.At times, the federal government has promised to support local public health efforts, to help prevent similar calamities. But those promises were ephemeral.Two large sources of money established after Sept. 11, 2001 — the Public Health Emergency Preparedness program and the Hospital Preparedness Program — were gradually chipped away.  The Affordable Care Act established the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which was supposed to reach $2 billion annually by 2015. The Obama administration and Congress raided it to pay for other priorities, including a payroll tax cut. The Trump administration is pushing to repeal the ACA, which would eliminate the fund, said Carolyn Mullen, senior vice president of government affairs and public relations at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat who championed the fund, said he was furious when the Obama White House took billions from it, breaking what he said was an agreement.  “I haven’t spoken to Barack Obama since,” Harkin said.If the fund had remained untouched, an additional $12.4 billion would eventually have flowed to local and state health departments.But local and state leaders also did not prioritize public health over the years.In Florida, for example, 2% of state spending goes to public health. Spending by local health departments in the state fell 39%, from a high of $57 in inflation-adjusted dollars per person in the late 1990s to $35 per person last year.  In North Carolina, Wake County’s public health workforce dropped from 882 in 2007 to 614 a decade later, even as the population grew by 30%.  In Detroit, the health department had 700 employees in 2009, then was effectively disbanded during the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. It’s been built back up, but today still has only 200 workers for 670,000 residents.Many departments rely heavily on disease-specific grant funding, creating unstable and temporary positions. The CDC’s core budget, some of which goes to state and local health departments, has essentially remained flat for a decade. Federal money currently accounts for 27% of local public health spending.Years of such financial pressure increasingly pushed workers in this predominantly female workforce toward retirement or the private sector and kept potential new hires away.More than a fifth of public health workers in local or regional departments outside big cities earned $35,000 or less a year in 2017, as did 9% in big city departments, according to research  by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the de Beaumont Foundation.  Even before the pandemic, nearly half of public health workers planned to retire or leave their organizations for other reasons in the next five years. Poor pay topped the list of reasons.Armed with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree, Julia Crittendon took a job two years ago as a disease intervention specialist with Kentucky’s state health department. She spent her days gathering detailed information about people’s sexual partners to fight the spread of HIV and syphilis. She tracked down phone numbers and drove hours to pick up reluctant clients.The mother of three loved the work, but made so little money that she qualified for Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for America’s poorest. Seeing no opportunity to advance, she left.  “We’re like the redheaded stepchildren, the forgotten ones,” said Crittendon, 46.Such low pay is endemic, with some employees qualifying for the nutrition program for new moms and babies that they administer. People with the training for many public health jobs, which can include a bachelor’s or master’s degree, can make much more money in the private health care sector, robbing the public departments of promising recruits.  Dr. Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, said the agency “intentionally underpaid people” in a training program that sent early-career professionals to state and local public health departments to build the workforce.  “If we paid them at the very lowest level at the federal scale,” he said in an interview, “they would have to take a 10-20% pay cut to continue on at the local health department.”As low pay sapped the workforce, budget cuts sapped services.In Alaska, the Division of Public Health’s spending dropped 9% from 2014 to 2018 and staffing fell by 82 positions in a decade to 426. Tim Struna, chief of public health nursing in Alaska, said declines in oil prices in the mid-2010s led the state to make cuts to public health nursing services. They eliminated well-child exams for children over 6, scaled back searches for the partners of people with certain sexually transmitted infections and limited reproductive health services to people 29 and younger.Living through an endless stream of such cuts and their aftermath, those workers on the ground grew increasingly worried about mustering the “surge capacity” to expand beyond their daily responsibilities to handle inevitable emergencies.  When the fiercest of enemies showed up in the U.S. this year, the depleted public health army struggled to hold it back.  A decimated surge capacityAs the public health director for the Kentucky River District Health Department in rural Appalachia, Scott Lockard is battling the pandemic with 3G cell service, paper records and one-third of the employees the department had 20 years ago.  He redeployed his nurse administrator to work round-the-clock on contact tracing, alongside the department’s school nurse and the tuberculosis and breastfeeding coordinator. His home health nurse, who typically visits older patients, now works on preparedness plans. But residents aren’t making it easy on them.”They’re not wearing masks, and they’re throwing social distancing to the wind,” Lockard said in mid-June, as cases surged. “We’re paying for it.”Even with more staff since the HIV outbreak, Indiana’s Scott County Health Department employees worked evenings, weekends and holidays to deal with the pandemic, including outbreaks at a food packing company and a label manufacturer. Indiana spends $37 a person on public health.”When you get home, the phone never stops, the emails and texts never stop,” said Hall, the preparedness coordinator.All the while, she and her colleagues worry about keeping HIV under control and preventing drug overdoses from rising. Other health problems don’t just disappear because there is a pandemic.  “We’ve been used to being able to `MacGyver’ everything on a normal day, and this is not a normal day,” said Amanda Mehl, the public health administrator for Boone County, Illinois, citing a TV show.  Pezzino, whose department in Kansas serves Topeka and Shawnee County, said he had been trying to hire an epidemiologist, who would study, track and analyze data on health issues, since he came to the department 14 years ago. Finally, less than three years ago, they hired one. She just left, and he thinks it will be nearly impossible to find another.  While epidemiologists are nearly universal in departments serving large populations, hardly any departments serving smaller populations have one. Only 28% of local health departments have an epidemiologist or statistician.Strapped departments are now forced to spend money on contact tracers, masks and gloves to keep their workers safe and to do basic outreach.Melanie Hutton, administrator for the Cooper County Public Health Center in rural Missouri, pointed out the local ambulance department got $18,000, and the fire and police departments got masks to fight COVID-19.  “For us, not a nickel, not a face mask,” she said. “We got (5) gallons of homemade hand sanitizer made by the prisoners.”  Public health workers are leaving in droves. At least 34 state and local public health leaders have announced their resignation, retired or been fired in 17 states since April, a KHN/AP review found. Others face threats and armed demonstrators.Ohio’s Gottschalk said the backlash has been overwhelming.  “Being yelled at by residents for almost two hours straight last week on regulations I cannot control left me feeling completely burned out,” she said in mid-June.  Many are putting their health at risk. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, public health worker Chantee Mack died after, family and co-workers believe, she and several colleagues contracted the disease in the office.  A difficult road aheadPence, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on June 16, said the public health system was “far stronger” than it was when coronavirus hit.It’s true that the federal government this year has allocated billions for public health in response to the pandemic, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. That includes more than $13 billion to state and local health departments, for activities including contact tracing, infection control and technology upgrades.A KHN/AP review found that some state and local governments are also pledging more money for public health. Alabama’s budget for next year, for example, includes $35 million more for public health than it did this year.But overall, spending is about to be slashed again as the boom-bust cycle continues.In most states, the new budget year begins July 1, and furloughs, layoffs and pay freezes have already begun in some places. Tax revenues evaporated during lockdowns, all but ensuring there will be more. At least 14 states have already cut health department budgets or positions or were actively considering such cuts in June, according to a KHN/AP review.  Since the pandemic began, Michigan temporarily cut most of its state health workers’ hours by one-fifth. Pennsylvania required more than 65 of its 1,200 public health workers to go on temporary leave, and others lost their jobs. Knox County, Tennessee, furloughed 26 out of 260 workers for eight weeks.  Frieden, formerly of the CDC, said it’s “stunning” that the U.S. is furloughing public health workers amid a pandemic. The country should demand the resources for public health, he said, just the way it does for the military.  “This is about protecting Americans,” Frieden said.Cincinnati temporarily furloughed approximately 170 health department employees.Robert Brown, chair of Cincinnati’s Primary Care Board, questions why police officers and firefighters didn’t face similar furloughs at the time or why residents were willing to pay hundreds of millions in taxes over decades for the Bengals’ football stadium.”How about investing in something that’s going to save some lives?” he asked.In 2018, Boston spent five times as much on its police department as its public health department. The city recently pledged to transfer $3 million from its approximately $60 million police overtime budget to its public health commission.Looking ahead, more cuts are coming. Possible budget shortfalls in Brazos County, Texas, may force the health department to limit its mosquito-surveillance program and eliminate up to one-fifth of its staff and one-quarter of immunization clinics.Months into the pandemic response, health departments are still trying to ramp up to fight COVID-19. Cases are surging in states including Texas, Arizona and Florida.Meanwhile, childhood vaccinations began plunging in the second half of March, according to a CDC study analyzing supply orders. Officials worry whether they will be able to get kids back up to date in the coming months. In Detroit, the childhood vaccination rate dipped below 40%, as clinics shuttered and people stayed home, creating the potential for a different outbreak.Cutting or eliminating non-COVID activities is dangerous, said E. Oscar Alleyne, chief of programs and services at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Cuts to programs such as diabetes control and senior nutrition make already vulnerable communities even more vulnerable, which makes them more likely to suffer serious complications from COVID. Everything is connected, he said.It could be a year before there’s a widely available vaccine. Meanwhile, other illnesses, including mental health problems, are smoldering.  The people who spend their lives working in public health say the temporary coronavirus funds won’t fix the eroded foundation entrusted with protecting the nation’s health as thousands continue to die.   

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While COVID-19 Rages, Don’t Forget About Pandemic Flu

Don’t panic, but there is another virus out there that could cause a pandemic.  This one is an influenza strain circulating in pigs and their caretakers in China.  It is not currently causing widespread illness, and it may never do so. But it has “all the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus,” according to the authors of a new study in the FILE – A patient receives a flu vaccination in Mesquite, Texas, January 23, 2020.‘Good news, bad news’ “There’s good news and bad here,” Pavia said. “I think the bad news is that once again, it looks as if we’re identifying strains of flu that are emerging in populations with the potential to jump to humans.”However, only a handful of serious cases have been reported.”The severity remains low. That’s good news,” Pavia said, adding, “there’s no guarantee that it’s going to stay that way.”Other factors also must change before alarm bells really go off, experts note.”What is really important for influenza pandemic emergence, as well as for any viral pandemic emergence, is sustained airborne transmission,” said University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine microbiologist and molecular geneticist Seema Lakdawala, who was not part of the research team.While a few people are getting infected, she said there is no sign now of sustained transmission.Food animals are a common source of new flu viruses. Birds, pigs and humans can all exchange flu strains. Pigs are especially welcoming environments for influenza viruses to reinvent themselves. Multiple strains can infect one animal, swap genes and emerge as a novel strain.Unpredictable There is no telling when the right combination of genes will fall into place and produce a virulent, transmissible virus.A lethal strain called H5N1 first appeared in poultry in Hong Kong in 1997 and resurfaced in 2003. It kills more than half the people it infects. But for reasons scientists do not understand, it has not gone pandemic.”It’s still a concern. It has caused hundreds of deaths,” said senior scholar Gigi Gronvall at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who was not involved with the research. “But for whatever reason, even though all eyes were on that, it was this other virus that took off in 2009.” FILE – Researchers of the Veterinary Institute under the Academy of Agricultural Research check on African Swine Flu at Ryongsong District in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 10, 2019.That year, H1N1 emerged from pigs and sparked a pandemic. Researchers estimate that nearly 300,000 people died from it in the first year. Since then, health officials have increased efforts to monitor livestock farms and markets for new viruses.”There’s been a big improvement, but it’s far from complete,” Pavia said. “The challenge is enormous. Influenza circulates among ducks, turkeys, swine – not to mention there are strains that infect everything from horses to dogs. And tracking all of these is an enormous task.”The effort is understaffed and underfunded, “like so many things in public health,” he said.And that’s dangerous. “We’ve seen the consequences of inadequate public health surveillance in the emergence and failure to control COVID-19,” Pavia noted. Flu tools Unlike COVID-19, health experts have tools against influenza that might help if the new strain were to launch a new pandemic.  “We know how to test for influenza viruses,” Lakdawala said. Flu antivirals are only partly effective, “but we do at least have antivirals that can limit the severity of disease. We have a number of them. We also have a vaccine platform that is already approved and safe.”  A vaccine could be available in a matter of months.  But there is no way to know whether the newly identified strain will spark a pandemic.”The more you study flu, the more you realize we just don’t know how to predict that,” Pavia said.  

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