Despite Cuts, Layoffs, Local Health Departments Ready for H1N1 Flu

By Sharmina Manandhar
Capital News Service
Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009

WASHINGTON - County health officials say they are prepared for the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic despite layoffs and service cuts necessitated by the state budget shortfall, but they remain worried about the effects on other programs.

The health departments hope to combat the staff shortage by hiring temporary nurses for the H1N1 vaccination campaign. These nurses will be paid using the federal Public Health Emergency Response grants provided to states through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officials said.

The H1N1 vaccines are expected to be available by mid-October, and Maryland's MedImmune will be the first vaccine manufacturer to provide the vaccines in the form of nasal sprays, CDC announced two weeks ago.

In the second round of state budget cuts since July, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed a reduction of $454 million last month. Those cuts have rippled through other departments, including local health agencies.

The Howard County Health Department will lay off 10 percent of its 160 staff members to meet a $900,000 budget cut, according to Dr. Peter Beilenson, health officer at the department.

"Yes, it will affect the department," Beilenson said. "Clearly, by having fewer staff, it becomes difficult to deal with the (H1N1) situation."

The department, however, plans to "fill the gap" by working with fire and rescue and hiring temporary nurses to administer H1N1 vaccines, when they become available. Howard County will receive a $600,000 PHER grant, Beilenson said.

In total, Maryland will receive more than $4.5 million in PHER grants, according to a Department of Health and Human Services press release in July.

However, Beilenson said the temporary PHER grant "doesn't make up for the $900,000 cut," which meant service cuts in pre-natal clinics, dental clinics and cancer control programs.

"Bottom line is local health departments are suffering," Beilenson said.

St. Mary's County Health Department announced 12 layoffs "as a consequence of state budget cuts for county health departments" last week.

The layoffs which included "mostly support staff" would not affect "any vaccination or immunization program," said Tracy Kubinec, St. Mary's deputy health officer.

"We fully intend to man the clinics," Kubinec said. "This will, however, put a strain on some other activities."

Kubinec also said her department expects $118,000 in PHER grants for implementation and personnel for mass vaccination clinics on top of the $149,000 it's already received for planning, Kubinec said.

Carroll County Health Department has been immune to layoffs so far.

"Fortunately, we think we are not going to have any layoffs for now," said Health Officer Larry Leitch.

Carroll County's department has been able to prevent layoffs through service cuts, a hiring freeze and by bringing in a variety of financial sources, according to Leitch.

"But if we get further cuts, we cannot continue this strategy," Leitch said.

To deal with the mid-October H1N1 vaccination rush, Leitch said he will hire about 175 temporary nurses.

Leitch also said most of the details about the mass H1N1 vaccination campaign are unknown. He urged residents to "be patient and watch out" for information.

"We don't know when we are getting it, how much we are getting. So it makes it awfully hard to plan a mass vaccination," Leitch said. "We may not be able to give too much notice."

Copyright 2009 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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