Best of the States


Joint investigation details hollowed-out US public health departments


AP’s Michelle Smith paired with KHN’s Lauren Weber, Laura Ungar, Hannah Recht and Anna Maria Barry-Jester to take a definitive look at state and local public health. While many people understood public health in general had suffered budget cuts over the years, the collaborative team used data to show exactly how expansive those cuts have been. They used deep reporting to show the impact those cuts have had over time. They painted a picture of a system starved of money and staff for years, facing more cuts amid a pandemic. With no single source of data, Recht pulled from more than a dozen sources, and worked with AP data editor Meghan Hoyer and KHN’s Liz Lucas. Weber, Ungar, Smith and Barry-Jester interviewed more than 150 people who told them of the burnout, low pay, threats and frustrations among public health workers.

Their reporting,and graphics by Francois Duckett and Recht,showed:

— At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since 2008.
— Most states had seen steep drops in spending.
— Priorities such as police get more money.
— Billions in cuts have been a bipartisan endeavor.

AP statehouse reporters helped determine 14 states had cut public health during the pandemic or were considering cuts. Jeannie Ohm shepherded video, shot by Mike Householder and Federica Narancio. Narancio and Paul Sancya contributed photos.

The package was a top story on Apple News,Politico’s Playbook highlighted it,and it made several front pages. KARE-11 in Minneapolis used it to do its own investigation. A New York Times editorial cited it. One political science professor wrote to say he plans to teach the story in the fall. The Public Health Foundation’s president wrote a note of thanks, calling the story “exceptionally well researched and presented.”

Kansas’ governor and three U.S. senators shared it,as did high-profile experts including Michigan’s top health official. Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius emailed her “highest compliments.” “Hopefully it will inspire some good ideas for Joe Biden,” Sebelius wrote.

For an ambitious story that laid bare the state of America’s public health system,Smith,Hoyer,Householder,Ungar,Weber, Recht and Barry-Jester share this week’s Best of the States.

For AP’s complete coverage of the coronavirus:

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Understanding the Outbreak: stories explaining the new coronavirus.

One Good Thing: daily stories of hope and humanity amid the crisis.

Ground Game: Inside the Outbreak: AP’s podcast series.

Lives Lost: stories behind the victims of COVID-19.

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