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Is America Prepared for a Public Health Emergency?

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Maryland is the best-prepared state in the nation for a public health emergency, according to a new report, published U.S. News and World Report.

The National Health Security Preparedness Index shows that overall, the United States' day-to-day readiness for managing a public health crisis last year improved by 11 percent since the index's first iteration in 2013, scoring a 7.1 on a 10-point scale. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia also boosted their overall health security in the last year, with Maryland scoring an 8.0 to outpace all other states.

"Threats to America's health security are on the rise, but so is our nation's preparedness to deal with these emergencies," Dr. Alonzo Plough, chief science officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in a press release. "The Index shows how prepared public and private stakeholders are to tackle health security challenges and sheds light on areas for improvement."

Originally developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annual efforts to refine and develop the index are led by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Kentucky. The index aims to identify strengths and gaps in public health security – examining 140 measures such as "the percentage of bridges that are in good or fair condition, number of pediatricians, and flu vaccination rate" – to show how prepared the U.S. and its states are to respond to threats like infectious diseases, terrorism and extreme weather.

But the improving results reflected in the report's latest release are not evenly spread across the country.

"States in the Deep South, Southwest and Upper Mountain West regions experienced lower health security levels and smaller gains in health security over time compared to their counterparts in other regions," according to the report's Key Findings. "These below-average regions contain disproportionate numbers of low- and moderate-income residents and rural residents who have fewer personal and community resources to draw upon in the event of an emergency."

Eight states saw no changes in their levels of health security since 2016, and four states – Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Oregon – saw their levels decline.

Twenty-one states scored below the national average of 7.1.

"Every community must be equipped to prepare for, respond to, and recover from any health emergency," Dr. Stephen C. Redd, director of the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, said in a statement. "The Index helps pinpoint where cross-sector investments are paying off and how the nation can increase resilience."

Gaps between the highest-rated states and the lowest were particularly stark in the index's analysis of community planning and engagement, and in access to high-quality health care during and after emergencies.

"Large differences in health security across states weaken the nation as a whole by limiting the ability of state, federal and local stakeholders to work together and share information and resources, a function known as interoperability," the report says. "These gaps are particularly troubling because they leave some communities more vulnerable to disasters and emergencies than others, contributing to inequities in population health and well-being."

Researchers also noted that national health security – while steadily improving to hit its highest level to date – still has progressed at a rate of less than 3 percent each year, meaning it would take five years for the U.S. to reach a health security level matching Maryland's, and nine years to reach a health security level of at least 9.0 on the 10-point scale.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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