Severe weather, an ongoing pandemic, chronic disease, and a dramatic increase in deaths related to substance misuse continue to test Georgia’s public health emergency preparedness.
Last year, total deaths from COVID-19 in the United States surpassed 1 million. As the omicron variant of the virus spread in January 2022, Georgia saw its highest case average.
In addition, 2022 was the eighth consecutive year in which the United States experienced 10 or more weather-related disasters causing at least a billion dollars’ worth of damage each.
Despite serious threats to the state’s public health, the 20th annual readiness report from Trust for America’s Health ranks Georgia in its highest tier, Trust for America’s Health Director of Communications Rhea Farberman said.
The report’s key public health preparedness indicators give state officials benchmarks for progress, point out gaps within their states’ all-hazards preparedness, and provide data to compare states’ performances against similar jurisdictions.
Its findings can help guide federal and state actions to ensure an adequate response to the country’s next health emergency.
“We look at 10 readiness indicators,” Farberman said. “Things like: Are you in a nurse compact? Are you accredited? Is the state accredited for public health and for emergency management? Do residents have access to safe water, drinking water in the home? Do you have surge capacity, health care surge capacity and laboratory surge capacity that can be increased during an emergency?”
She said the report also considers factors such as access to paid time off and influenza vaccine rates.
Georgia’s 46% flu vaccination rate is below the national average of 52%, but Farberman said even that national average is too low, and the target rate for flu vaccination is 78%.
The state does not have a statewide paid leave policy, and the majority of Georgians are not eligible for the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act because they are newly employed, work for a small business or are employed part time.
Georgia is one of 37 states participating in the Nurse Licensure Compact, which means nurses can have one multistate license with the ability to practice in all compact states.
“You can borrow nurses, if you will, from a neighboring state in the event of an emergency,” Farberman said. “Licensed nurses from another state can come in and practice in Georgia for a temporary time to help with that workload during an emergency.”
The COVID pandemic illuminated a number of weaknesses in Georgia’s public health system that can be improved.
“We need to invest now in rebuilding the system, modernizing the data system for public health, growing the public health workforce,” she said. “We need to invest now so we have those resources when we need them.”
The report shows a link between health inequities in emergency preparedness and those communities that are disadvantaged by health inequities including lack of access to health care, safe housing, or transportation.
Residents of these higher-risk communities are often people of color, who suffer stronger impacts of an emergency and have more trouble recovering from the emergency.
“We need to invest in the social determinants of health in those communities to make them more resilient every day and more resilient in the face of the next emergency,” Farberman said.
This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.