How prepared is the DC region for emergencies, outbreaks?

The measure approved Friday stripped out provisions allowing doctors to have immunity from lawsuits. It also tightened the definition for terminally ill. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)(Getty Images/iStockphoto/gorodenkoff)

WASHINGTON — One of the most important functions of state and local governments is to ensure towns and states are prepared for an emergency situation. In a national study into the preparedness of all 50 states and D.C. for anything from a flu outbreak to a hurricane, the D.C. region fared well.

“When we compare the D.C. area to the rest of the country, it looks better than many parts of the county,” said John Auerbach, president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health.

The study ranks each state in one of three tiers. Ranking is based on funding for public health, paid sick leave, rates of flu vaccinations and access to clean water. Virginia and Maryland landed in the top tier, and D.C. in the middle tier, according to the TFAH’s 2019 rankings.

When it came to flu vaccination Maryland and Virginia have some of the highest rates of flu vaccinated residents, but rates are still just shy of 50 percent. Accurate flu vaccination rates for D.C. were not available.

Doctors often urge patients with the flu to stay home from work, but patients are far less likely to do so if they don’t have paid sick leave. When it comes to percentage of populations with sick time, D.C. topped the list at 65 percent. 58 percent of Virginians and 60 percent of Marylanders have paid sick leave.

“We know that people will come to work with an infectious disease if they don’t have sick time,” Auerbach said.

The study also measured states’ ability to manage health emergencies by gauging health laboratories ability to handle overlapping outbreaks during a six to eight week period. The D.C. area ranked well again.

If an outbreak grips a state, Auerbach said having a plan to work with other hospitals around the region is very important. In Virginia and D.C., all hospitals have formed coalitions which enable them to work together more efficiently during an emergency. In Maryland, 89 percent of hospitals have similar compacts.

Ensuring health staff is available during an emergency is also important, according to Auerbach. This is where the Nurse Licensure Compact comes in. The compact — which Maryland and Virginia participate in, but not D.C. — allows nurses to care for patients in multiple jurisdictions with a single license. Without it, registered nurses and licensed practical nurses may have to wait until an emergency is declared before they can assist in an emergency situation.

According to Auerbach, several states are experiencing a reduction in federal funding for public health. The D.C. region hasn’t been immune.

“They have had to grapple over the last several years with the loss of federal funding, and that has created challenges,” Auerbach said.

That said Maryland saw a 5 percent boost in state public health funding in 2019 and Virginiasaw a 0.5 percent bump. In D.C., city funds directed toward to public health dropped 1.1 percent.

“Restoring the cut funding for emergency preparedness is key,” Auerbach said.

In addition to recommending more state funding for emergency situations, Auerbach said the organization also recommends the nation establish an emergency fund that can quickly be tapped in the event of a public health crisis.

Auerbach pointed to recent public health situations, including the Zika outbreak and trepidation during the Ebola crisis. In both cases, the federal appropriations process drastically slowed and Congress struggled to get funds out to combat the problem.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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