Disaster planning money reduced

Federal money used to help local and state public health agencies plan for disasters is being cut by $3.7 million in Washington, with cuts to Snohomish County and four other northwest Washington counties estimated at $200,000.

The regional planning program for Snohomish, Island, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties is losing 21 percent of the federal money it receives, said Tim McDonald, director of communicable disease control for the Snohomish Health District.

Overall spending in the five-county region for the budget year starting Aug. 8 will be $882,219.

“We’re laying off two people and not filling one vacant position,” he said. The two people affected by the layoffs are the current regional program director, T.J. Harmon, and Shari Mattson Cooper, a communications specialist.

The regional planning program is based at the Snohomish Health District, and coordinates efforts between health departments and other emergency responders in the five counties.

The regional staff will continue to have four employees. Health district staff will take on more responsibility for regional public heath emergency planning, McDonald said.

Regional planning for public health emergencies “will rely much more on the expertise and leadership of the Snohomish Health District,” he said.

All five counties in the region have already signed agreements to help each other during public health emergencies.

For example, if something happens in Island County, “the Snohomish Health District, as well as regional personnel will assist that county in any way we can,” he said.

A national push for public health agencies to plan for emergencies came in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and panic over bioterrorism after anthrax-contaminated letters were sent through the mail.

In response, local and state public health agencies received $1.1 billion in federal money to help prepare for future emergencies.

Washington public health agencies first began planning for a possible bioterrorism attack in 1999, with just a $400,000 budget, said Mary Selecky, secretary of the state Department of Health.

Initially, they geared up for responding to health hazards and terrorism, she said. Over the years, that has shifted to preparing for any health emergency, from a worldwide flu outbreak to health problems created by natural disasters.

This planning helped health officials and other public agencies responding to the heavy flooding that hit five counties surrounding Olympia in December.

The federal investment has been “absolutely essential” for state and local public heath to prepare for emergencies and help with recovery efforts, Selecky said.

The upcoming cuts are “an unwanted trim,” she said. “We’ll all have to reduce programs, but there’s still funding for work to continue.”

The worry, she said, is if there’s another federal cut next year on top of the ones starting next month. “Where do we go from that?” she asked.

Reporter Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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