PASCO COUNTY, Fla. — September 11 marked six months since the World Health Organization characterized the coronavirus as a pandemic. University of South Florida Public Health Professor Dr. Jay Wolfson said he thinks Tampa Bay responded well, despite challenges.
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“Part of the problem, as I’ve said for awhile, is that for the past ten or 15 years, the state has underfunded, and in some cases defunded, state public health programs and budgets,” said Wolfson, who’s also senior associate dean of the Morsani College of Medicine. He said those cuts trickle down to local health departments.
“The good news has been that we have amazingly competent people running those local health departments. They’re not independent. They’re all part of the department of health, but they’re extremely well-trained and knowledgeable,” Wolfson said. “Even though they were short handed and may not have had many of the resources they may have needed and we knew so little about this bizarre disease, we were able, I think, in a relatively short period of time, to get control of the data.”
Wolfson said that allowed public health officials to learn where the cases were concentrated and target efforts to slow the spread. He pointed to success Pinellas County, in particular, has had in lowering its positivity rate.
“The culture of the community was in sync with the public health needs of the community, even though the public health system itself was a little bit behind capacity,” he said.
Spectrum Bay News 9 has spoken with public health professionals and experts throughout the pandemic about lessons being learned along the way.
“In public health, you are always learning,” Florida Dept. of Health in Citrus County Health Officer Ernesto “Tito” Rubio told us as the county expanded its testing efforts in May.
“I will tell you the first day we were doing drive-up testing, we weren’t doing it this way,” Rubio said at the time. “We examined the things that we did. We asked ourselves what worked. We asked ourselves how we can do it better the next day, and we made those improvements.”
Tampa Bay registered nurse Susan Marano headed to the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus when she worked at a New York City hospital beginning in the pandemic’s early days. She said an issue she’d like to see addressed ahead of future infectious disease situations is stockpiling.
“I think if you have a stockpile that there should be some type of mandate that within the first 48 hours — 48-72 hours — that you relinquish your stockpiles. No one should have equipment that they’re not using and not be willing to give it up because of ‘what if’,” Marano said in April.
“There are a lot of lessons being learned, especially from people who were not aware of the potential impact of a pandemic. There are people out there who knew that this could happen, who’ve been trying to prepare for it. So, it’s not completely new to everybody,” said Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Pediatric Infectious Disease Physician Dr. Juan DuMois.
DuMois said in April that interest in a possible pandemic was particularly high following an influenza pandemic in 2009-2010.
“Interest waned when that pandemic passed, and we really did not do much,” DuMois said. “We actually lessened our ability to react in the last few years.”
Moving forward, Wolfson said he’d like to see more investment from the state into public health infrastructure. He said it’s an area that can sometimes be overshadowed by clinical medicine.
“If you’re investing in clinical medicine, you’re investing in devices and vaccine,s and you’re building buildings and clinics, and it’s tangible. Public health is preventive. It’s putting in place things so that you don’t have the risks in the future. That includes public education as well as data acquisition and management systems,” Wolfson said.
Wolfson said he’s optimistic that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of funding such resources.