A national report released Wednesday ranked Oklahoma six out of 10 in key indicators of public health preparedness, meaning its ability to respond in case of widespread emergency.
Thirty-five states and Washington, D.C., scored a six or lower on the report by Trust for America's Health, something that concerns the organization's executive director.
“In the past decade, there have been a series of significant health emergencies, including extreme weather events, a flu pandemic and foodborne outbreaks,” Jeffrey Levi said. “But, for some reason, as a country, we haven't learned that we need to bolster and maintain a consistent level of health emergency preparedness.
“Investments made after Sept. 11, the anthrax attacks and Hurricane Katrina led to dramatic improvements, but now budget cuts and complacency are the biggest threats we face.”
Trust for America's Health is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on health of communities and works to make disease prevention a national priority.
The organization's report, released each year, looks at 10 indicators, based on publicly available data, that relate to how prepared a state is in case of a public health crisis. This might include pandemic, bioterrorism or a major weather-related disaster.
Overall, one of the report's biggest critiques is the continued funding cuts at the local, state and federal level. In 2011, Oklahoma cut public health funds by 10.6 percent, according to last year's report.
Levi said these cuts put the success that public health has seen at risk.
One example of this type of budget cut in Oklahoma is the funding cut made to the state's surveillance of mosquitoes.
Until this year, the state Health Department had a contract with Oklahoma State University's entomology department to trap mosquitoes across Oklahoma, testing them for mosquito-borne disease.
This past year, because of funding cuts, the state Health Department no longer had money available to pay for the mosquito surveillance. This lack of surveillance meant the Health Department didn't know West Nile virus was in Oklahoma until the first human case.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma saw 177 cases and 13 deaths related to West Nile virus this year, more than any other year since the virus first entered the United States in 1999.
“What's scary about this kind of situation is — we don't know what we don't know,” he said. “If we don't have the resources to do the kind of surveillance and have real-time situational awareness, our response will always be behind the curve.”
Of the 10 indicators used in the report, Oklahoma was counted off for not being a member of the Nurse Licensure Compact, which allows registered nurses and licensed practical or vocational nurses to have a single multistate license to practice in other compact states; not meeting the U.S. Health and Human Services' goal of vaccinating 90 percent of 19- to 35-month-olds against whooping cough; not requiring Medicaid coverage of flu shots with no copay for beneficiaries younger than 65; and lacking a complete climate change adaptation plan.
The state received its six points because of the state's ability to assemble public health staff quickly in case of emergency; its mandate that child care facilities must have a written evacuation and relocation plan; increased or maintained level of funding for public health services from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 fiscal years; the state's accreditation from the Emergency Management Accreditation Program; and two points related to the state public health lab's ability to respond in crisis.
The Oklahoma Health Department has a plan for emergency response for several public health crises, including pandemic, catastrophic health events and bioterrorism, said Scott Sproat, chief of the emergency preparedness and response service at the Heath Department.
And it's hard to measure, using only 10 indicators, how prepared the state is for any of those crises, Sproat said.
The report is fair, but at the same time, isn't designed as a comprehensive look at a state's level of preparedness, he said.
It does allow people, though, to see the complexity and the context of public health preparedness, Sproat said.
“Not only the resources and the systems the Health Department has put in place, but also that public health preparedness, starts with the individuals and making sure that we're availing ourselves and our families of vaccinations and really doing those things to prepare ourselves,” he said.
“That's really the foundation of preparedness is individual preparedness,” he said.