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Swine Flu A Stimulus For Cash-Strapped Calif. Health Departments

The swine flu pandemic has been a stimulus of sorts for California’s cash-strapped county health departments because of an infusion of federal emergency funds.

A scientist cuts the end of a human saliva sample in a small-diameter glass tube during the analysis for a A(H1N1) virus, the influenza A(H1N1), commonly being referred to as 'swine flu', on August 14, 2009.
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Above: A scientist cuts the end of a human saliva sample in a small-diameter glass tube during the analysis for a A(H1N1) virus, the influenza A(H1N1), commonly being referred to as 'swine flu', on August 14, 2009.

The swine flu pandemic has been a stimulus of sorts for California’s cash-strapped county health departments. State and local budget cuts have hit nearly every one of them. Now the federal government is sending out millions of dollars to help these departments ramp up their pandemic response.

At Sacramento County’s Public Health Department they’re doing something they haven’t been able to do for awhile, hiring people.

“It’s a temporary stimulus, but it is a stimulus, at a time in which we really needed one,” says Lynnan Svensson, Sacramento County’s Immunization Program Coordinator.

Svensson has been spending a lot of time on the phone figuring out how she’ll use these new employees at the H1N1 vaccine clinics that start next week.

“So that’s the plan, that’s the flow of the clinic per clinic. We need about 30 nurses and 30 non-medical individuals to serve as a line monitors, consent people, vaccination card people, you know runners.”

The California Department of Public Health says counties around the state will receive about $150 million. The bigger the county’s population the more funding it gets. For example Los Angeles County will receive $40 million where a smaller county, like Humboldt, gets about $600,000.

Svensson says Sacramento County Public Health will get about $3.5 million in federal funding. She says that money will give her staff a huge boost – she’s getting at least 80 new employees. That’s compared to her normal team of eight part-time employees.

“We’re bringing on some registered nurses, some licensed vocational nurses as well as some assistants, senior office assistants,” says Svensson.

Svensson says they’ll work at more than 40 H1N1 vaccine sites over the next few months. Without them she says it’d be almost impossible to give out about 2,000 shots at each clinic. This comes at a time she’d been laying staff off because of budget cuts. And she’ll be able to hire back some nurses who were recently let go.

Jan Heckey is one of those nurses. She was laid-off about six weeks ago and has been trying to find another job. She says even though it’s a temporary position and a little bittersweet, the paycheck will help her family’s budget.

“We have been affected in my not working. We have definitely had to scale back on expenses and put things on hold. And it helps me during the Christmas season too,” says Heckey.

Public health departments around the nation will be getting federal emergency funds too. Jeff Levi is with the public health advocacy group, Trust for America’s Health. He says while California health departments have weathered some of the biggest budget cuts, many others around the country need financial help too.

“Over the last year and a half it’s been estimated that local health departments have lost somewhere around 20,000 positions,” says Levi.

Levi says this summer Congress approved more than $7.5 billion in emergency funds for swine flu - not he says to be confused with the federal stimulus money. More than half of that money went to pay for H1N1 vaccine production. And he says local health departments will get almost one and a half billion dollars to give out the vaccines.

Levi says while this money is critical it’s still a short term boost. “Those positions that have been at least temporarily saved or restored at the local level because of the pandemic money, those will disappear again once the pandemic is over.”

But he says there’s a bright spot for the future. In the recently passed House of Representatives health care overhaul bill there’s a multi-billion dollar trust fund that includes money for local health departments. But that dedicated revenue stream is not a done deal – because the Senate hasn’t weighed in with its version of a health care bill.

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