The current government shutdown is stretching into its second week, and it’s already one of the longest and largest in history. It’s cost us an estimated $1.6 billion so far — and it could also be costing us our health and safety. Here are five reasons that the shutdown represents a public health threat to millions of Americans:
1. It’s harder to make sure that food won’t make people sick.
The shutdown is compromising food safety inspections, an area that has already been plagued with budget cuts. The FDA had to halt its routine inspections of food facilities, both here in the U.S. and abroad. Food imports are still being inspected before they cross the border, but most of the scientists that typically analyze samples are furloughed, so it will take longer to inspect any products that are potentially problematic. And the CDC, which monitors foodborne illnesses once they emerge, has warned that it doesn’t have enough staff to conduct its work.
After a widespread salmonella outbreak prompted a health alert earlier this week, some of CDC’s furloughed employees were called back to work to help. But the agency still isn’t operating at full capacity. “There’s a backlog, and the team is going to have to work diligently and long hours to try and overcome that,” Dr. Christopher Braden, the head of the agency’s division that’s responsible for monitoring foodborne illnesses, told the Associated Press. “It’s possible we may find something we’ve missed, and when that’s the case it’s harder to start investigations later than earlier.”
2. It’s harder to track national outbreaks of infectious diseases.
In addition to foodborne illnesses, the CDC is also responsible for monitoring multi-state outbreaks of diseases like influenza, whooping cough, and the measles. But while the government is shut down, the agency can’t do that work. The shutdown is coinciding with the beginning of this year’s flu season, which typically sickens thousands of Americans.
The CDC has also been forced to scale back on its “quarantine stations,” which makes sure that airport travelers aren’t taking infectious diseases along with them on their trip, by 80 percent. Those CDC employees are supposed to examine and detain anyone who might be an “infectious threat to the U.S. public.” Dr. Martin Cetron, who leads CDC’s division of global migration and quarantine, told the Associated Press that there’s now a greater risk that diseases from other countries could make their way into the U.S. That’s not a hypothetical scenario. Just last month, a measles outbreak in Texas was sparked by someone who had recently traveled to Indonesia who was infected with the disease.
3. Programs that make sure low-income mothers and children don’t go hungry are in limbo.
Poorer Americans’ food security is threatened by the current shutdown, as states are running out of money for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The assistance provided to help feed those struggling mothers and children isn’t deemed to be a “mandatory” expenditure for the U.S. government.
Anne Edwards, a Minnesota pediatrician who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) committee on state government affairs, is trying to remind lawmakers that this is serious public health threat. This week, Edwards met with members of Congress to warn them about the short- and long-term developmental effects of cutting food aid for children who lack other sources of nutritional assistance. “Some states have funding, but how long these programs continue will depend on how much money they have left,” Edwards pointed out, noting that kids who don’t have access to quality nutrition can experience developmental delays.
4. The agencies that typically ensure worker safety aren’t on the job.
Just like the USDA has been forced to halt its regular food plant inspections, federal safety workers aren’t currently able to conduct regular workplace inspections, either. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration currently has just 10 percent of its workforce on the job. The National Transportation Safety Board will only investigate the accidents that appear to be putting lives or property in danger. The Mine Safety and Health Administration isn’t able to complete its mine safety inspections, and there were mine accidents on three consecutive days last week.
The United Mine Workers, the largest union representing the U.S. mining industry, is raising alarm. “The government’s watchdog isn’t watching,” the president of the United Mine Workers, Cecil Roberts, pointed out. “Safety violations that would normally be caught and corrected as a result of those inspections are being missed. Even the smallest violations, when allowed to accumulate, can lead to dangerous conditions very quickly in a coal mine.”
5. Public health researchers’ work is potentially being set back for years to come.
This week, two Nobel Prize winners noted that their groundbreaking research took years of government-supported grants to complete, and pointed out that the current shutdown is stifling future scientific discoveries. Indeed, research across the country has been forced to grind to a halt. New studies have been delayed as the result of the shutdown, and some projects may never recover.
Researchers also aren’t currently benefiting from the open exchange of ideas. Last week marked a major infectious diseases conference, but the people who work for the CDC weren’t allowed to attend. Attendees didn’t get to hear about federal research, government employees didn’t learn what other scientists in the field are currently working on, and potential collaborations didn’t get a chance to get off the ground. Clifford Hudis, the president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, pointed out that it’s impossible to estimate the cost of that missed opportunity. “You can’t quantify the loss of programs because of a lack of interactions at a meeting,” Hudis told JAMA’s news blog. “We won’t know what research will never be done.”
The shutdown comes on top of sequestration’s deep cuts to scientific research, so it’s ultimately making a bad situation even worse. “With flat funding, cuts, and sequestration, we’re really seeing a lack of adequate investment in biomedical research and public health,” Amanda Jezek, the vice president for public policy and government relations at the Infectious Diseases Society of America, noted.