N.J. earns low marks in 'Ready or Not' report
January 4, 2013
by Scott Fallon
Bergen County Record
New Jersey is among the bottom seven states in its preparedness to handle extreme weather, disease outbreaks and public health emergencies, according to a national study.
The 10th annual "Ready or Not" report by the Trust for America's Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation blamed much of the New Jersey's problems on funding cuts at the state and federal level.
"It's hard to maintain the level of preparedness when the resources aren't there," said Rich Hamburg, deputy director of the Trust for America's Health, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to disease prevention. "We've been asking public health officials to do more with less and that's not even factoring in a once-in-a-century storm like Sandy."
Much of the report's analysis was done before superstorm Sandy, which slammed into New Jersey in late October causing $37 billion in damage. While the study reported favorably on New Jersey's public health response to the storm, it cited the state for not having a comprehensive plan to deal with climate change, unlike some other East Coast states.
New Jersey received a score of four out of 10 in the report, which was released late last month.
Decline in federal money
The state got a perfect score in the 2007 report when funding for post-Sept. 11 initiatives was still strong. But federal funds for emergency preparedness decreased to $657 million in 2012 from a high of $1 billion in 2003.
"You're talking about 30 to 40 percent drops and clearly that's going to affect a lot of states," Hamburg said.
New Jersey has no climate-change adaptation plan, but a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said it is working with federal, county and local officials to develop plans that will better protect the Jersey Shore – one of the state's biggest economic engines.
"The administration is working hard to rebuild the coast better and smarter, taking into account lessons from Sandy and anticipating that we have to face the stark reality of more storms like this in the future," said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP.
Other states have done more planning, but implementation has been slow because of the enormous price tag associated with major infrastructure changes.
Maryland has a plan that supports accelerated use of better storm-water management.
Connecticut's plan suggests transportation corridors will need to be redesigned because of sea-level rise.
New York City has elevated sidewalk grates for its subway lines to block storm runoff, and Boston has elevated a sewage treatment plant in acknowledgment of sea-level rise.
Some of the other criticisms in the report included New Jersey cutting its funding for public health from 2011 to 2012.
New Jersey narrowly missed meeting the federal goal of vaccinating 90 percent of 19- to 35-month-olds against whooping cough, the report said.
The state does not mandate that all child-care facilities have a multi-hazard written evacuation and relocation plan. And New Jersey's public health laboratory does not have enough staffing to work five 12-hour days for six to eight weeks in response to an infectious disease outbreak, according to the report.
On a more positive note the state is able to notify and assemble public health staff to an incident within an hour, according to the report. The state also rated favorably for requiring Medicaid to cover flu shots with no co-pays for beneficiaries under 65. The state has been accredited by the Emergency Management Accreditation Program. And the state public health laboratory is well equipped and staffed to respond to chemical threats, the report said.
Sandy response praised
The report praised New Jersey hospitals, health care workers and public health officials for dealing with the enormity of devastation wrought by Sandy and mentioned, among other things, the smooth evacuation of flooded Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen.
"Each time we respond to a major event, we learn and improve," said Donna Leusner, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services. "As demonstrated during Hurricane Sandy, the department was well-prepared in advance."
No state received a perfect score in the 2012 report. The other states among the bottom seven were Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii and Nevada, which all also scored four out of 10. Kansas and Montana scored three.
Topping the list were Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Vermont and Wisconsin, which all scored a high of eight.
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