Local governments often use national “healthy city” rankings to attract new residents, businesses and tourists.
Often, cities at the top of the list use these rankings to tout their desirability to people looking to relocate, visitors and businesses. Colorado Springs has been ranked in the top 20 in several of these surveys.
Being perceived as a healthy place to live and play, however, can lead to complacency in recognizing underlying indications that the health and well-being of residents is actually being compromised.
Data from the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment (EPCDHE) is a warning to businesses and residents that Colorado Springs might not hold a place near the top for very long.
From Jan. 1, 2004, through Dec. 31, 2006, the EPCDHE sustained a cut in county funding of $1.1 million, which translated to a 25 percent decrease in local support for public health. This decrease resulted in the El Paso County Health Department being one of the lowest-funded health departments in Colorado on a per-capita basis.
In an effort to mitigate the effects of the funding decrease, the department was forced to decrease activities in several areas including restaurant inspections and infectious disease investigations, particularly related to sexually transmitted diseases.
During this time, El Paso County experienced a rapid increase in population and is now the largest populated county in Colorado.
The combination of decreased funding for core public health activities and population growth has increased the risk to residents of contracting an infectious disease, and has the potential of jeopardizing the city’s ranking as a healthy place to live.
Public health is affected as the community grows, as evidenced by the growing number retail food establishments – from 2000 to 2006 there has been a 15 percent increase. The increase in the number of retail food establishments in El Paso County has led to the inability of the EPCDHE inspectors to meet the minimal two health inspections at all food establishments annually.
The number of complaints received by the health department linked to eating out more than tripled in 2006, compared to 2005, (from 60 to 178).
The community also has been faced with greater challenges with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) and norovirus.
A recent active TB case required testing of more than 200 people who were exposed to the infected individual. Norovirus, which causes severe gastroenteritis, has been implicated in 14 nursing home outbreaks during the past six months, involving more than 500 residents.
The department also must prepare for a possible increase in West Nile Virus cases each summer, a heavy flu season every winter and a possible flu pandemic at any time.
The impact to a community of a weakened public health system cannot be ignored. It is of particular concern to a city that depends on tourism. During the next few years, Colorado Springs will see an increase in tourists as a result of the USGA Senior Golf Open at The Broadmoor.
One only need to consider the recent exposure of hepatitis A to out-of-state patrons at a gathering in Los Angeles to understand the implications to tourists of becoming ill from eating contaminated food.
The Los Angeles Health Department was able to rapidly intervene to notify all potential victims who were exposed and facilitate administration of preventive medication and avert an extensive outbreak of the disease.
However, even with this swift and successful response, the reputation of the catering company could be tarnished. On the other side of the coin, in a recent article in the journal Public Health Management and Practice, Dr. Kevin Stephens, the director of the New Orleans Health Department (NOHD) described the challenges facing his department.
NOHD was severely under-funded before Hurricane Katrina and now faces incredible challenges as it tries to rebuild and meet the needs of the population.
The health department usually goes about its business quietly; it isn’t until there is an outbreak which impacts the community as a whole that it gets the attention of residents and businesses.
If funding for the department continues to be slashed, the community could be faced with a dilemma in maintaining essential, protective services to keep our community safe and a great place to live, visit and conduct business.
Will Colorado Springs still be one of the top 20 healthiest cities in five years? The answer to that question depends on the decisions that are made today. Bolstering public health will require a financial investment, but it is one that should have positive payoffs for all.