Is Our Public Health System Equipped to Handle a Disaster?
The September 11 attacks and subsequent anthrax outbreaks put our public health system in the spotlight, according to Kristine Gebbie, Columbia's Standish Gill Associate Professor of Nursing and director of the Center for Health Preparedness. Although the infrastructure of the public health system in the United States, which exists to prevent problems and limit disasters, has been largely neglected by the narrow and almost exclusive focus on our hospital system, the New York City Health Department faired well during the disaster because of the department's size, with most services continuing in all but the area surrounding Ground Zero. Gebbie suggested that in an emergency situation many health departments in other parts of the country would not be equipped to handle the emergency since half of the health departments in the United States are staffed by fewer than 10 people. Gebbie's work in disaster preparedness, the creation of a core competencies project for public health workers in collaboration between Columbia and the New York City Department of Health, came into timely use on Sept. 11. Having completed the training of 800 New York City Public School nurses in the basics of school nursing and staffing emergency shelters, Gebbie saw many of those nurses bring their training into practical use on that day and after.