New Jersey is not as prepared to deal with an epidemic as 30 other states, a government watchdog group said Tuesday.
The Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit charity dedicated to improving public health, ranked the 50 states on 10 factors to assess their overall preparedness to handle a health emergency.
This year's report - the seventh annual - specifically examined how states responded to the swine flu, or H1N1 virus, during the recession.
- New Jersey got credit for six of the 10 factors:
- Stocking up on flu vaccine.
- Submitting data on available hospital beds.
- Tracking the state's diseases in a federal database.
- Tracing the source of food-borne disease.
- Having enough volunteers ready to respond to a crisis.
- Drafting laws to protect nonprofit agencies and volunteers who respond to an emergency.
The charity's deputy director, Richard Hamburg, said maintaining health funding was the most important of the 10 criteria in maintaining good public health. On this mark, New Jersey failed because it cut health funding between 2008 and 2009, according to the report.
"We're talking about the middle of a pandemic and we're lucky it was not as severe as it could have been," Hamburg said. "We've seen substantial cuts in resources that have truly tied the hands of state and local public health officials."
New Jersey was not alone: 26 other states also cut health funding this year.
The report said New Jersey did not meet other benchmarks:
- Its labs are not prepared to pick up or deliver samples at any time.
- Its labs reported they do not have enough staff to cover 12-hour days for up to eight weeks during an epidemic.
- New Jersey does not require licensed daycare centers to have a written evacuation and relocation plan for various kinds of emergencies.
The state Department of Health and Senior Services disputed the report's findings.
"We don't believe the report accurately reflects our capabilities," Senior Assistant Commissioner David Gruber said.
Gruber said the state's labs were adequately staffed to handle an emergency or attend to lab samples 24 hours a day. And while New Jersey did cut his department's funding in each of the past two years, he said the cuts did not affect disaster preparedness.
"I think our ability to respond has improved over the past year," he said.
But Gruber said the report was valuable for highlighting the many factors that go into preparing for a health disaster.
Of the 50 states, Montana fared worst with just three of 10 criteria while nine states achieved nine of the 10 benchmarks in the report.
Neighboring states Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware fared better than New Jersey.
"We are simply not ready yet, not prepared, to deal with the range of threats," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, an associate dean at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
He served on the report's peer-review board.
Redlener, a pediatrician, said outbreaks such as the swine flu should serve as a wakeup call for public agencies about their ability to handle a crisis. Instead, he compared the latest flu threat to a snooze alarm.
"We get aroused, free up some money, create an agency, but then drift back into complacency," he said.
He said 15,000 public health workers have been laid off in the past year.
"Cutting programs and diminishing readiness has really left the country vulnerable to disasters," he said.