What’s the matter with Kansas: Public health, disasters and diseases

Greensburg, Kansas tornado, 2007 Photo by Greg Henshall / FEMA

Greensburg, Kansas tornado, 2007 Photo by Greg Henshall / FEMA

I don’t get it. Neither does Kansas Governor Sam Brownback nor other state political leaders.

I’ve always been proud of Kansas. It’s where I was raised, educated and spent a third of my professional life. I always felt Kansas politicians and state agencies cared deeply and personally about the well-being of its residents.

As a reporter, I often covered stories involving the state’s ability to respond to health emergencies- environmental  threats, serious disease outbreaks and extreme weather (tornadoes, blizzards and floods).  The Kansas I knew was able to react swiftly, wisely and without partisan rancor to address health emergencies.

Ready or NotThus, I was dismayed to read today that Kansas ranked dead last nationally in the 10th annual Ready or Not? Protecting the Public from Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism report.

The report, issued by the non-profit, non-partisan organizations Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), found there continue to be persistent gaps in the country’s ability to respond to health emergencies, ranging from bioterrorist threats to serious disease outbreaks to extreme weather events.

Kansas and Montana scored lowest—three out of 10—while Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Vermont and Wisconsin scored highest—eight out of 10.

 Kansas, unlike 37 other U.S. states, has inadequate public health laboratory staffing capacity to respond to an infectious disease outbreak.

Kansas, unlike 37 other U.S. states, has inadequate public health laboratory staffing capacity to respond to an infectious disease outbreak.

In the case of Kansas, budget cuts and complacency appear to be a primary cause for the Sunflower state’s fall to the bottom of the public health emergency preparedness heap:

  • Public Health Laboratories Staffing and Surge Capacity – Kansas, unlike 37 other U.S. states, does not have adequate public health laboratory staffing capacity to work five, 12-hour days for six to eight weeks in response to an infectious disease outbreak, such as a novel influenza like A H1N1.
  • There was a decrease in funding for public health programs during fiscal year 2011-12.
  • Kansas, unlike 30 other U.S. states, does not have a state mandate requiring licensed child-care facilities to have a multi-hazard written evacuation and relocation plan.
  •  Kansas, unlike 29 other U.S. states, has not been accredited by the Emergency Management Accreditation Program.
  • Kansas did not meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services goal of vaccinating 90 percent of 19- to 35-month-olds against whooping cough.
  • Extreme Weather Event Preparedness – Kansas does not have a complete climate change adaptation plan.
  • Health System Preparedness – Kansas does not participate in a Nurse Licensure Compact.

These indicators were developed in consultation with leading public health experts based on data from publicly available sources, or information provided by public officials.

Hands Conditions for Kansas residents have declined over the past four years in these areas as well: 

  • Kansas ranks 41st nationally for per capita state public health funding. In 2009 Kansas ranked 38th.
  • Kansas ranks 38th nationally for the percentage of residents without health insurance. In 2009 Kansas ranked 31st.
  • Kansas ranks 41st nationally for syphilis rates. In 2009 Kansas ranked 37th.
  • Kansas ranks 40th nationally for the number of children aged 19 to 35 months without all immunizations. In 2009 Kansas ranked 8th.

These low score are an important measure of the quality of life in Kansas, or lack thereof.  It means inadequate preparedness puts more Kansas resident’s lives at potential risk should there be a public health emergency. That’s not a good reflection on Kansas nor the ability of Kansas political leaders to prioritize solutions for these issues.

Wouldn’t you agree that it’s time Kansas political leaders address this issue?

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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