OHIO — Cities across Ohio, including Cincinnati, have been brought to a standstill by COVID-19. So this has us asking, what about the next pandemic? What can government and society do to be better prepared?
At this point, you’ve heard politicians says that no one could have predicted the current medical emergency. But Dr. Georges Benjamin, head of the American Public Health Association, says that is simply not true.
“We’ve had plans for pandemics for a long time. And, in many cases, we’re not following the plans that we have,” he said.
In fact, President George W. Bush released a 2005 report calling for a coordinated government response to a potential flu pandemic. The report follows a similar theme as other government reports of the time, with recommendations to bolster the fed’s medical supply stockpile, investment in public health staff, and coordination at all levels of government.
Dr. Benjamin says his fingerprints are on a lot of those government reports.
“And the fact is that we’ve had lots of changes in leadership. We haven’t passed it along, even the oral history for many of these issues have been lost,"
Meanwhile, the strategic national stockpile of medical supplies is at the heart of criticism that not enough was done to prepare for a pandemic like COVID-19.
But as ProPublica reporter Lydia DePillis tells us keeping medical supplies at the ready often took a backseat at all levels of government.
“New York City did this too with their own stockpile, that they weren’t properly maintained, and then they auctioned them all off. So, you need to keep intense focus on preparedness, even if the possibility of this event seems increasingly remote,” said DePillis.
So, looking ahead, if preparedness is the name of the game, how do we effectively predict the future of medical emergencies?
Dr. Benjamin says the key is continual training and practice in contact tracing, logistics, and capacity building. Just writing reports and running table top exercises won’t cut it.
“We absolutely need to build a sustainable public health system for the future. And I’m talking about the governmental public health stuff that occurs long before people get to the hospital. That’s the first thing I would do. I would spend a lot of time and effort and money in preparedness training, and requiring that we do it as a matter of course,” Dr. Benjamin said.
And ProPublica health reporter Caroline Chen points to the need for public health investment across government.
“The CDC has to have the ability to talk to the states. You know, some of them are still operating on phone and fax, so even the ability to get data from a state-level health department from what they’re seeing in the amount of emergency room visits and be able to expeditiously, with the latest technology, get that data back to the CDC, for example. And to not have budgets get cut during the peacetimes,” Chen said.
But peacetime spending isn’t what it used to be. The government is now on the hook for trillions in economic stimulus related to the COVID social distancing policies. While good for public health, this isn’t sustainable spending policy, says Adam Millsap, a senior fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.
“I think you’re right that we’re going to have to reckon with this. What does that exactly look like? I think we’re going to need to maybe dust off some of the bipartisan agreements or bipartisan plans that have kind of come up in the past,” Millsap said.
Being prepared for the next health crisis will mean keeping public health a top social and government priority, something Dr. Benjamin has said all along.
“I’m gonna continue to tell people we told you so.”