LePage’s dereliction of duty to protect public health is a disaster in waiting

The LePage administration has gutted the Maine Center for Disease Control and put public health at risk.

Whether it’s willful or incompetence, it doesn’t really matter.

While it’s legitimate to argue about the size and role of government — Democrats and Republicans do it constantly — most people would agree that the state has an obligation to protect the health and safety of its residents.

In this regard, Gov. Paul LePage is failing and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, under the leadership of Commissioner Mary Mayhew, is a shadow of its former self.

It’s completely unclear today whether DHHS and the Maine CDC could react to a public health emergency quickly or competently.

The details of this dereliction of duty were detailed in an explosive investigative report by the Bangor Daily News’ Matt Stone.

In the lengthy report — followed by a series of other important stories by the BDN’s Maine Focus team that chronicled a chaotic and dysfunctional system intended to protect newborn babies in Maine and the state’s rising infant mortality rate Stone digs through years of data, state and department budgets, and interviews with and recently departed employees of the department to uncover a shocking state of affairs.

During the LePage administration, the number of public health nurses, men and women whose job is to protect all of us from infectious disease and to ensure at-risk babies get a strong start in life, has been cut in half.

Vacancies have gone unfilled. Budgets have been cut. Administrative support has been eliminated. Offices have been closed. And bureaucratic barriers have been built that prevent effective communications between public health staff.

I was working in the office of Gov. John Baldacci in 2009 when we faced a global influenza pandemic. A novel strain of Influenza A, which was called 2009 H1N1, struck the United States. An after-action report created by the Maine CDC gives a good overview of the crisis.

Between April 2009 and February 2010, there were an estimated 59 million cases of H1N1 flu in the US. These cases resulted in approximately 265,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths nationwide, the report summarizes.

The pandemic was first identified in Maine in April 2009. A strong public health response — and good luck — spared Maine the worst of the outbreak. The flu was particularly dangerous to older people and to children, and it spread quickly.

As the after-action report shows, 40 summer residential camps had outbreaks, 200 schools had outbreaks and about 250 Mainers were hospitalized, the majority of whom were children and young adults. Twenty-one people died.

Fotolia | TNS

Fotolia | TNS

At the time, my kids were seven and four, and I was scared for them. There was a shortage of vaccines, so much so when supplies arrived they were transported in secret and protected by members of the Maine National Guard and police.

The Maine CDC, Department of Health of Human Services and Maine Emergency Management Agency were on the front lines. They tracked the disease, provided vaccines, handled logistics and provided information to the public, which was rightfully scared and angry.

The Maine response wasn’t perfect, but the state weathered the storm through the hard work and dedication of first responders, including public health workers at the Maine CDC.

Based on the BDN’s reporting, it appears Maine would no longer be capable of reacting to a public health emergency like H1N1.

And that’s unacceptable.

The decline of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC comes at a time when our state needs competent professionals to manage new public health threats.

Maine ranks 2nd in the country for the number of babies born addicted to opioids, the number of uninsured children in the state has risen from 11,000 in 2010 to 16,000 in 2014, and more children are going hungry. And infant mortality is on the rise.

This is Maine.

All that — and much more — falls under to the Department of Health and Human Services. The department is failing to do its job.

LePage makes no secret of his disdain for state government, but his mismanagement or malfeasance with regards to public health is a disaster in the making.

As he demonstrated with his fear mongering during the Ebola scare in 2014, LePage has little understanding of science or epidemiology and little patience for people who put facts above ideology.

To LePage, diseases and public health are only worth talking about when the subjects can be used to scare voters or malign lawful immigrants.

When it comes to the state performing its basic responsibility of protecting public safety, he’s much less interested and it shows with a greatly compromised DHHS and Maine CDC.

Call it mismanagement. Call it maliciousness. Call it short sighted. When the next crisis comes, we will call it a disaster — one that could have been prevented.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.