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Glad to see Health Dept. getting help — now, make it permanent

One of the earliest realizations of the coronavirus pandemic was that America had woefully underfunded its public health agencies.

Last August, Kaiser Health News reported that spending on America’s local health agencies had fallen 18% since 2010, spending on state agencies had fallen 16%, and at least 38,000 state and public health jobs had been slashed since the Great Recession took hold in 2008.

That meant that, despite the valiant efforts of those on the ground in places like District Health Departments No. 4 and No. 2 serving Northeast Michigan, public health officials found themselves short-staffed and under-resourced last year when suddenly asked to respond to the biggest global pandemic in a century.

To their credit, state and federal lawmakers have recognized that shortcoming and worked to address it, including a recent $432,000 state payment to District Health Department No. 4 that will allow the department to keep temporary contact tracers on staff and hire up to three part-time clerical employees, an emergency management supervisor, and an information technology supervisor.

That is welcome news, not just for the Health Department employees burdened with long hours and too little help, but for the community that will benefit from the work those employees do on our behalf.

The only negative part of that news is that the money is temporary, as are the positions that money will fund.

We urge policymakers to explore ways to permanently reinvest in our public health agencies.

A BBC story last June quoted multiple scientists predicting that, because of human encroachment into the natural world, climate change, and other factors that bring more people into more contact with animals, the world could face pandemics more frequently in the future.

Reinvesting in public health could make us more surefooted when the next one comes around, and could help public health agencies perform the other jobs that protect us, from water quality to restaurant inspections to vaccinations to more.

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