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Zika Is Coming — And States Don’t Have The Emergency Funds To Handle It

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nev. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 12, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO, EVAN VUCCI
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nev. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 12, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO, EVAN VUCCI

As national panic over lead-poisoned public water systems bleeds into the looming threat of the mysterious mosquito-borne Zika virus, one thing has become clear: States are dangerously unprepared to tackle health emergencies. In fact, federal and state budget cuts have all but extinguished state emergency programs over the past decade.

Now, a contentious budget fight in Congress is further chipping away at what little remains in states’ emergency stockpiles — and it couldn’t come at a worse time.

Though the Obama administration has asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in new supplemental funding to help battle Zika, spending-averse conservative lawmakers have yet to agree. Instead, Republicans convinced the White House to reallocate $589 million in existing federal funds to fight the spread of the Zika virus. Despite opposition from congressional Democrats and public health experts, who warned about the need for a new funding stream, the majority of this money was taken from the government’s Ebola response fund.

And a substantial $44 million came directly from state emergency preparedness grants. State and local public health programs were counting on receiving these grants in July. While the White House is still pushing Congress to approve its initial Zika funding proposal, it may not come in time for the state health departments, many of which are now scrambling to drastically revise their yearly budgets that relied on the promised federal grants.

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Republicans In Congress Are Setting Up The World For A Public Health DisasterHealth by CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman The White House has decided to combat the Zika virus by transferring funds…thinkprogress.orgIf Congress can agree on the $1.9 billion in the next few weeks, they could be in luck. The majority of Obama’s funding request — $1.48 billion — would go toward the Department of Health and Human Services to improve state preparedness for the coming Zika epidemic.

However, cities and states need emergency preparedness funds for more than just combating Zika. A reliable emergency management program could have saved the residents of Flint, Michigan from what’s become a national health crisis. Without these federal grants, Michigan has even less money to supply Flint with needed resources in the aftermath. Minnesota, also expecting an July delivery of federal funds, has been forced to reduce the state supply of antibiotics on hand for future infectious disease outbreaks.

To make matters even worse, the southern states that are most vulnerable to Zika remain the most unprepared to combat a potential health emergency. According to a recent evaluation by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that examined state emergency preparedness, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama are the three states least prepared for “large-scale emergencies.” The Gulf Coast states are slated to be hit the hardest by Zika.

“We’re lagging behind in states with high-poverty, low-resources…and those tend to be in the South,” said Glen Mays, a health policy professor at the University of Kentucky who led the evaluation. “The federal government has an important role to play in financing at least the basic aid these states need. The inequities we see right now are really troubling.”

The federal government has an important role to play in financing at least the basic aid these states need.

State health departments are hesitant to raise alarm in fear of igniting distrust, but their smaller-scale equivalents are vocal about the impact these cuts will have on their already-underfunded programming. Public health workers are especially strained in Texas, where health departments are losing nearly $3.6 million of total funding.

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“When you lose 10 percent of your funding, the expectations of the community are not that you are 10 percent less responsive to their needs,” Umair Shah, head of the Harris County public health department in Houston, told the Washington Post this month. “They expect you to be just as capable today as tomorrow.”

Both Texas and California are loosing significant emergency funds to prepare for Zika. In Los Angeles County, the nearly $1.6 million in grant funding for the county alone was going to fill 17 vacancies in its public health laboratory and buy new equipment to sufficiently test for Zika. The irony of this pulled funding is not lost on health officials.

“This is stealing from Peter to pay Paul,” Los Angeles County Interim Director Cynthia Harding told the Washington Post. “What we need to prevent Zika from becoming endemic are more funds at the local level.”

Zika has already made its presence known in most southern states, including Texas, and has overwhelmed Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

Zika’s Spread Across The U.S. May Change The Narrative Around AbortionBy now, most Americans are familiar with the Zika virus, the mosquito-spread disease that’s left thousands of babies…thinkprogress.orgCongress doesn’t have much time to pass the hefty funding bill before mosquito season hits the United States. And with two week-long vacations on the horizon, it’s hard to tell if members of Congress will reach a conclusion before their 7-week-long summer recess. This urgency has become increasingly palpable among Democrats in Congress.

In a Thursday discussion on the Senate floor, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) didn’t respond well to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)’s claim that the $589 million in shifted funding should be enough to cover the Zika crisis.

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“My friend…has a lot of nerve,” replied Reid. “There have been a lot of states affected by emergencies in the last decade, but Texas had its share, and we have been willing to help them. Those were emergencies, this is an emergency.”

While the majority of GOP members of Congress oppose the additional funds, some have begun to soften to the idea — especially if their state is already in Zika’s grips.

These mosquitoes bite everyone. And they’re not going to ask you what your party registration is.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who represents a state with nearly 100 confirmed cases of Zika, has been especially vocal about his support.

“I hope that there is real urgency about dealing with this,” Rubio said on Thursday. “There is no such thing as a Republican position on Zika or Democrat position on Zika because these mosquitoes bite everyone. And they’re not going to ask you what your party registration is or who you plan to vote for in November.”

However, Congress remains at a standstill as it enters a 10-day break.

“It’s just a matter of days, weeks, or hours before you will open up a newspaper, turn on the news and it will say someone in the continental United States was bit by a mosquito and they contracted Zika. And when that happens, then everyone is going to be freaked out, not just me,” Rubio added.

“I want to know what to say when [people] ask ‘What did you do about it?’”