As California makes the steady, grim climb toward 20,000 deaths resulting from COVID-19, policy makers and the leaders of front-line health care organizations already are turning some of their attention to how we can improve our response when widespread disasters strike in the future.
Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a Capitol Weekly panel discussion, where we began to lay the groundwork for a vital and challenging conversation heading into the 2021 legislative session – especially as we recognize that the next crisis is not a matter of if, but when.
COVID-19 has shined a bright light on California’s disaster planning, built for a local or regional disaster, where an earthquake in a populous area is the worst-case scenario. Consider:
- Current plans rely on mutual aid – when disaster strikes, help and resources from other areas are brought in to assist – but that approach does not work in a pandemic where everyone needs help and there is no extra resource to bring in from within or outside of California.
- Matters of public health in California, including infectious disease, are controlled at the county level. Is a larger spread of disease best managed differently in California’s 58 counties or centrally at the state level? How do county and state regulations help or impede a more effective response?
- What investments should be made in disaster preparedness in California? How do we ensure they are evaluated broadly and objectively, and prioritized in the context of today’s crises and concerns?
These questions and more will be front and center when the Legislature reconvenes in just a couple of months. It’s clear that California can no longer rely on 20th century models, so new thinking will be needed.
For example, one of the key takeaways from the pandemic is that the sameness of the illness has meant unprecedented strain on the same types of personal protective equipment, the same medical specialists like respiratory therapists, and the same testing supplies. There’s simply not enough to go around, so how should a scarcity of resources guide our planning for future events? There are many other issues that also must be thoughtfully explored.
This debate will take place against the backdrop of growing national and state concern about the affordability of health care and at a time when hospitals are enduring perhaps their most challenging financial circumstances ever.
That’s why it’s critical that, as we think differently about disaster readiness, we examine the whole of California’s health care system and aim to balance the dual goals of a more resilient network and more accessible care for all.