Zika: State and local governments struggle to find needed funds to fight virus outbreak

Federal, state and local governments must work together to address potential public health concerns, like the outbreak of the Zika virus, but leaders say that getting ready for the front lines is often an uphill battle.

LaMar Hasbrouck, executive director of the National Association of City and County Health Officials, said at a press briefing last week that many local and state governments are following in the footsteps of the feds and reallocating funds from other areas to handle epidemics like Zika. This, he said, is “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” as other needed programs may suffer from cutbacks.

“We’re doing more with less,” Hasbrouck said. “It’s impacted our basic capacity to do other things.”

As of last week there have been more than 7,300 cases of Zika, 972 pregnant women with Zika and 15 babies born with Zika-related birth defects in the United States.

Part of the problem is the fact that local health departments’ ability to prepare for potential outbreaks has been “decimated” over the past five years, Hasbrouck said. Co-panelist Kelly Murphy, program director of the health division for the National Governors Association’s (NGA) Center for Best Practices, echoed the sentiment.

States have taken steps to fight the spread of Zika, she said during the briefing, like working through the NGA to share key information and controlling mosquitoes, but funding problems are a concern at the state level, too. Murphy said that governors are “keeping lines of communication open” as they also reallocate funds to deal with public health issues.

Governors across the U.S. have three avenues in which they can effectively address the Zika virus outbreak, Murphy said:They can coordinate resources among key stakeholders, accurately inform the public and use executive orders for specific needs.

Part of the problem is federal inaction about the virus. Congress has been deadlocked on approving funds for Zika treatments and research, including vaccine development. As a result, last week the Department of Health and Human Services took matters into its own hands and reallocated enough funds from its budget to cover ongoing research for a vaccine at the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

Funds may trickle down to the state and local levels, Hasbrouck said at the briefing, but for now it looks like officials of both may have to settle for doing “more with less.”

“There must be some level of sustained investment,” Hasbrouck said. “Congress cannot expect, and should not expect, local health departments to pull a rabbit out of a hat."

- here's a link to the press briefing