More ready than not

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By Tris DeRoma

  A report recently published by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has given New Mexico a satisfactory grade when it comes to health and emergency preparedness.

The report, “Ready or Not? Protecting the Public from Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism” gives New Mexico a seven out of 10 score when it comes to being prepared for any sort of threat, manmade or otherwise. 

The report graded the state on 10 factors: Funding commitment, response readiness, infectious disease control, extreme weather event preparedness, community resiliency, emergency management, health, system preparedness, public health laboratories staffing and surge capacity and Public health laboratories — Chemical threat preparedness. 

The report broke down each of these factors and gave them an either “yes” or “no” rating.

The factors that received a “no” rating included: “Funding commitment: Did the state maintain or increase funding for public health programs from Fiscal Year 2010-2011 to Fiscal year 2011-12”, “Infectious Disease Control — Does the state require Medicaid to cover flu shots with no co-pays for beneficiaries under the age of 65” and “Extreme Weather Event Preparedness — Does the state currently have a complete climate change adaptation plan.”

“New Mexico had some strong showings in the Ready or Not Report,” according to a statement issued by the New Mexico Department of Health. “It shows the public health staff is prepared to respond quickly to an incident. Furthermore, it shows New Mexico Department of Health has the staffing capacity to respond to an infectious disease outbreak.”

At least one Los Alamos County official had a problem with one of the factors New Mexico was graded on, “Extreme Weather Preparedness.”

Phil Taylor, the emergency management coordinator for Los Alamos County, thought the grade regarding climate change plans was questionable, since the issue of climate change is still an issue that’s hotly debated in scientific circles.

“Why did they have to link this question to climate change?” Taylor said. “Why don’t they just say does the state have an extreme weather response plan, which New Mexico does.”

Taylor reasoned that since the debate about climate change is still ongoing, the question puts New Mexico at an unfair disadvantage.

“You can get a room full of PhDs on each end of that question and they’d still be arguing while you, the layman, are stuck in between. It would be like watching a tennis match,” Taylor said, adding that Los Alamos County has much experience dealing with heavy snowstorms and wildfires such as Las Conchas, which became one of the biggest wildfires in New Mexico’s history, according to the National Park Service.

Albert Lang, the communications manager at TFAH said Taylor and Los Alamos County may have a great weather preparedness plan, but he points out the score was averaged out among all the counties in the state.

“If you have a baseline for preparedness across different possible scenarios, then that should build up your case so he (Taylor) might be right,” Lang said. “This is a state report and so Los Alamos County might have a really good climate change plan, but we just don’t delve down to that lower a level.”

The NMDH also had questions about the climate change score and gave a reply, as well.

“The New Mexico Department of Health recently put together a report, New Mexico Heat Stress Surveillance 2008-2010. It takes a look at the increase in temperatures and how many emergency department visits were reported, said health department officials through a written statement. “On a broader scope, the Bureau of Health Emergency Management plans for emergencies, floods and other natural disasters and even bio-terrorism. Emergency plans are in place.”

The NMDH had a lot to say about the “Infectious disease and vaccinations” score, too.

“The Immunization Program and Public Health Division have reached out to birthing hospitals to promote ‘cocooning,’ said the health department in a written statement. “That is the practice of immunizing mothers/fathers and other adult infant caretakers. Half of the 30 birthing hospitals in the state are currently participating in ‘cocooning’ or have agreed to so.

“The Immunization Program conducts comprehensive, quality assurance assessments in provider offices. They are designed to improve immunization coverage among children 19-35 months. The program also offers feedback to the providers to increase immunization practices.”

The NMDH also acknowledged the dip in health funding, but claimed the decrease did not affect state health services.

“Funding for public health, as with many other programs in the state, has been cut as a result of the recession. There has been no major impact to public health services,” the NMDH officials said in the statement.

Lang said the report was developed using public data and “leading public health experts” and agencies, such as the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. 

Lang also pointed out that New Mexico, overall, did very well on the study despite the three strikes on the report card. New Mexico is in the top rankings, while 35 other states ranked below it. 

According to health officials quoted in the report, New Mexico and a majority of the other states have steadily improved their health and emergency preparedness status, in spite of dips in the national economy and tightening budgets.

“In the past decade, there have been a series of significant health emergencies, including extreme weather events, a flu pandemic and food-borne outbreaks,” Jeffrey Levi, Ph.D, executive director of TFAH, said. “But, for some reason, as a country, we haven’t learned that we need to bolster and maintain a consistent level of health emergency preparedness. Investments made after September 11th, the anthrax attacks and Hurricane Katrina led to dramatic improvements, but now budget cuts and complacency are the biggest threats we face.”

According to the “Ready or Not” report, the state cut its funding for public health services by 9.1 percent in fiscal year 2010-11 to fiscal year 2011-12.

Taylor said the reason why New Mexico received a decent score is because of the state’s response to real-time events.

“We’ve had some real-time experience over the last five-plus years that has greatly improved our ability to respond to real world events,” Taylor said. He recalled the Hn-N1 virus outbreak in 2009, as well as the Las Conchas Fire in 2011.

Lang said the report, now in its 10th year, is meant to supply a snapshot to state and county, and local officials of where each state stands in its preparedness.