Cuts to local health departments make it challenging during pandemic

Health departments in Central Florida are feeling more pressure after cuts to staff and funding.

Orange County Health Director Dr. Raul Pino said, throughout the years, funding for the Orange County Health Department has declined. He said it's an issue nationwide.

"Our population especially in Orange County has grown so much in the last 20 years. And the funding for the health departments have remained the same. So at some point, we are going to burst through the seams."

According to a study by Laura Ungar of Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press, the Florida Health Department, spent 41% less per resident in the last decade, dropping from $57 to $34. Staffing went from more than 12,000 to 9,000 people.

"They have cut back on funding and staffing for local health departments for decades. Because of that, they were unprepared for the pandemic when it hit."

Dr. Pino added, "Then when you have a crisis like this, you don’t have a workforce that is ready to jump and take care of that crisis."

Dr. Pino says he plans to hire 100 new employees with CARES ACT money to deal with COVID 19 cases.

"We went down over the years over 100 employees, and coincidentally those are the same hundred that we have been forced to hire back rather quickly, to be able to put up these operations."

Once they’re back on staff, he said, "You need three to four weeks to train these people to do their job, and that’s a burden in the middle of a pandemic."

Ungar says it also means other areas of the health department, like research and outreach programs, have also taken a hit.

"That meant fewer people to do more routine tests, like tracking and tracing diseases like hepatitis."

Dr. Pino says HIV prevention is also suffering.

"We have one of the highest incidents in this county. That’s an area where we are going to ask for additional resources at this point."