CDC awards $3.2B to public health departments

Hospitals and other providers weren’t the only entities caught off-guard by COVID-19 in March 2020.

The pandemic exposed problems across healthcare, including at state and local public health departments, some of which could only rely on outdated technology such as fax machines in the life-or-death struggle with this “novel coronavirus” that sprinted across the globe. In some states, public health departments became targets of legislators who pushed laws curtailing the departments’ authority, as Kaiser Health News reported last year.

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)awarded $3.2 billion to state, local and territorial health departments in an effort to improve departments’ efficiency. The money was made available under the America Rescue Plan Act, which was passed in March 2021.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., said in a press release that “state, local, and territorial health departments are the heart of the U.S. public health system, and the COVID-19 pandemic severely stressed these agencies, which were already weakened by neglect and underinvestment. This grant gives these agencies critical funding and flexibility to build and reinforce the nation’s public health workforce and infrastructure and protect the populations they serve. We are meeting them where they are and trusting them to know what works best for their communities.”

State and local health department officials will need to work out the specifics of how the funds will be allocated. For instance, Georgia expects to get about $100 million in funding, the Moultrie Observer reported.

Nancy Nydam, the director of communications for the Georgia Department of Public Health, told the newspaper that “at this time, specifics of how the funding will be distributed to the districts are still being discussed.”

CDC wants the money to be used to train public health workers, including those whose expertise has been much relied upon: lab scientists, data analysts, epidemiologists and contact tracers. In addition, $140 million targets improvements to improve public health infrastructure to, among other things, ensure the safety of food and water, provide child and maternal healthcare, and monitor data.

In addition, $65 million in funding will be allocated to what the CDC describes as “national partners”: the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), the National Network of Public Health Institutes (NNPHI) and the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB).

Leaders of the three organizations expressed gratitude in a joint statement.

Michael Fraser, Ph.D., ASTHO’s chief executive officer, said that “we will be helping states address training needs, supporting recruitment and retention efforts, and bringing subject matter experts and leaders together to build up their public health systems.”

Vincent Lafronza, NNPHI president and CEO, said that “this investment will equip state, tribal, local, and territorial public health agencies to strategically improve complex systems and enhance cross-sector collaboration that will result in strengthened public health capacity serving every community.”

Paul Kuehnert, PHAB president and CEO, said that “there has never been a more crucial time to build up public health infrastructure and the public health workforce than now.”

In the press release, the CDC states that the “grant helps to address urgent and ongoing public health needs in communities that are economically or socially marginalized, rural communities, and communities with people from racial and ethnic minority groups.”