King County no longer has the resources to track and treat cases of noncontagious tuberculosis and do other proper disease monitoring.
As the state Legislature hammers out its final budget deal, it must identify and respond to the need for additional funding for public health. The health of all of us depends on it.
Recent news that the University of Washington and Public Health — Seattle & King County would be screening more than 100 individuals who had come into contact with someone infected with Tuberculosis (TB) is just the latest in a string of TB cases throughout our region. Earlier this year, more than 200 students in Renton were screened for TB after they were exposed. And last fall, 100 medically complex and vulnerable individuals were screened at 1811 Eastlake, a supportive-housing facility in Seattle.
These are just a few examples of the rise in communicable-disease cases throughout Puget Sound.
Earlier this year, King County was dealing with 10 concurrent outbreaks. Disease investigators were battling cases of TB, hepatitis and Legionella. STDs are on the rise and hundreds of children have suffered from mumps this school year. All while a record-breaking number of flu cases filled many hospitals to capacity, forcing them into a “Code Purple” — meaning patients had to be diverted to other facilities due to overcrowding.
This rise in disease across our region is not just bad luck. It reflects our state’s steady decline in funding for public health. As funding has decreased, populations have increased and diseases have grown more complex. This means public-health departments across our state are struggling to provide the most basic services with very limited resources — and too little disease prevention can happen as local health departments triage outbreaks.
Here in King County that means we no longer have the resources to track and treat cases of noncontagious tuberculosis. We have an estimated 100,000 individuals with latent — or noncontagious — TB living among us. One in 10 of these cases will become contagious. Yet we don’t have the resources to do anything to prevent these individuals from further spreading disease.
Cases like this not only put our communities at risk, but it also has cost implications. The treatment of someone with latent TB costs about $500. Yet, if that case becomes active — or contagious — that figure increases to $17,000. And that number does not include the cost of screening all the individuals who were exposed, which can help prevent the spread of the disease. This is just one of the tough choices public-health officials have had to make in the face of annihilated budgets. There are many examples, such as our system no longer having the resources to consistently review child deaths in our state. These reviews help to shape outreach and policies to prevent more children from dying.
It’s not too late to curb this troubling trend. This legislative session, a coalition of health groups and public-health leaders developed a proposal to reinvest in our crumbling public-health system. The plan calls on the state to invest in core public-health services — the services that should be available to every resident in our state, no matter where they live. Services such as tracking disease to stop its spread. This would free up dollars at the local level for investment in the unique needs of communities throughout our state.
During the past year, public-health leaders across the state have agreed on a plan of efficiencies and streamlining. They want to also modernize the way public health delivers services so it remains effective and efficient. Support from the state Legislature would also help improve our system by designating services that can be effectively and efficiently shared between local health jurisdictions. This would allow multiple health departments across different counties and cities to share staff resources and services in key areas, reducing redundancy while increasing coverage.