On Tuesday, after Congress failed to reach an agreement to fund the government, it was forced to shut down. About 800,000 federal employees aren’t allowed to go to work. And if you think you’re unaffected by the shutdown because you don’t work for the government, think again. Particularly as this year’s flu season kicks off, everyone needs to cross their fingers that the nation doesn’t experience a significant outbreak while the government remains closed.
That’s because more than half of the employees who work at the Department of Health and Human Services are currently being forced to stay home. Until the government re-opens, the country’s public health agencies won’t necessarily be prepared to respond to a massive outbreak of influenza, whooping cough, or the measles.
“The vast majority of CDC’s activities will shut down completely. Our public health response will be slowed,” Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News.
Indeed, the agency has been forced to halt its seasonal influenza program right as that particular illness is about to get more prevalent. The CDC won’t be able to conduct its regular surveillance of influenza cases, which helps the agency monitor and combat the illness during the winter. They also won’t be able to closely track the emergence of other diseases, like the bird flu. The shutdown comes on the heels of last year’s flu season, which was especially severe.
The same goes for potential food poisoning outbreaks. The CDC isn’t currently able to track foodborne illnesses like salmonella — at the same time as the USDA is being forced to scale back its food inspections. Food imports likely will go unchecked while the government is shut down, an area that has already been strained by spending cuts despite the fact that imported food caused a stomach bug outbreak as recently as July.
In addition to the Americans who haven’t yet gotten sick, the shutdown will also affect the people who are waiting for treatment for their long-term illnesses. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also isn’t currently able to accept any new patients, start any new clinical trials, or take any action on research grants.
Most government shutdowns in U.S. history have lasted three days, although the longest shutdown stretched on for 21 days.