Public Health Directors say department underfunding poses challenges

Posted at 9:48 AM, Apr 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-16 17:35:37-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Five public health directors overseeing six counties said their departments are underfunded. This caused a great deal of challenges pre-pandemic, and those challenges have worsened over the past year.

"There's not one person on this call who has not been severely cut in their staffing over the years. We're not talking 5-10 percent. We're talking 20, 30, 40 percent," Dan Stapleton, the public health director of Niagara County, said.

"Our allocations from state aid, from grants, keep eroding year by year. That has resulted in a lot of us being in a position where we don't have enough resources for just general public health work much less being able to respond to a significant pandemic," Paul Pettit, the public health director for Orleans and Genesee Counties, said.

Chautauqua County's public health director, Christine Schuyler, said funds are generally cut because a great deal of public goes unseen.

"Public health work is invisible. Every time you turn on your tap, you turn on your toilet, when we're talking disease prevention work, the spread of communicable diseases, STDs, family planning... This is all core public health work that people don't seem to think about or know about. That's core public health work that's been completely overlooked. That's why it's underfunded," Schuyler said.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said underfunding made it difficult for these public health departments to operate before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. When the pandemic started, health departments had to pull resources from already strained programs.

"They were all originally underfunded before the pandemic. We've had to pull staffing resources from those important programs to respond to the pandemic. Now, we're faced with having to go back and try to rebuild many of those programs after we've really lost a lot of hard fought battles," Dr. Burstein said.

They said change is necessary, but they can't predict when it will come.

"Although we're not going to see much of a change going from 2020 to 2021, we still need to build upon that infrastructure in order to make it stronger for future pandemics that might occur," Dr. Kevin Watkins, the public health director of Cattaraugus County, said.