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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 24, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 31
Public Health Workers May Not Work During Pandemic

Nearly half unlikely to report in; two-thirds think their work not important

By Tim Parsons
School of Public Health

Local public health workers would play a vital role in responding to an influenza pandemic, from monitoring the spread of illness to organizing the distribution of medications to communicating critical health information to the public.

But more than 40 percent of public health employees surveyed said they are unlikely to report to work during a pandemic, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

The survey, conducted in Maryland by the Bloomberg School's Center for Public Health Preparedness, also found that 66 percent of public health workers felt they would put themselves at risk of infection if they were to report to work during a pandemic.

The results of the survey are published in the April edition of the journal BMC Public Health.

For the study, researchers surveyed 308 public health workers from three Maryland counties: Carroll, Dorchester and Harford, which were selected because their population sizes were comparable to those covered by 96 percent of the nation's public health departments serving communities of 500,000 people or fewer.

In the survey, clinical staff members, such as physicians and nurses, were more likely to say they would report for work; technical or support staff, including computer entry staff and clerical workers, were the least likely. The willingness to report was strongest among employees who perceived an importance in their work and responsibilities during a pandemic. Less than one-third of all public health workers said they felt they would have an important role in the response to a pandemic.

"Current preparedness plans account for some personnel shortages mainly due to illness from influenza. However, our results show that half of local public health workers would be unlikely to report during an extreme crisis. Three out of four technical and support workers don't even think they will be asked to report to work during a pandemic," said Ran Balicer, lead author of the study and a member of the health sciences faculty at Ben-Gurion University's Epidemiology Department.

Co-author Daniel J. Barnett, of the Center for Public Health Preparedness, said, "The public health workforce will play a critical role in managing an influenza pandemic, but the workforce is not yet prepared for this crisis. We need more training for public health workers, particularly for those in technical and support roles, so they clearly understand the importance of their work in the event of a pandemic."

Additional authors of the study are Saad B. Omer and George S. Everly Jr., both with the Center for Public Health Preparedness.

Funding for the study was provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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