Grace Deng

(Washington State Examiner) Washington’s Department of Health has cut over 300 employees who helped with the state’s pandemic response and hundreds more of these jobs are on the chopping block as federal COVID aid dries up.

The department already slashed 356 positions and will soon lose funding for 349 more. Funding for most of the jobs will lapse by July 2024 and all federal COVID-19 funds for staff will end by July 2025, according to an agency spokesperson, Roberto Bonaccorso.

Similar cuts are happening nationwide as federal COVID relief funding expires. Public health advocates are warning that as jobs like these are eliminated, it threatens to leave states in a weaker position responding to the next public health crisis.

From January 2020 to October 2023, Washington State Department of Health COVID-19 hires cost nearly $316 million. The department’s total two-year operating budget for 2021-23 was $3.2 billion, with COVID funding accounting for about half of that total.

Jobs already cut by the Department of Health include positions in vaccine distribution, community outreach, COVID-19 testing services, contact tracing and tracking public health data.

Other jobs involved developing COVID-19 guidance for public settings like schools, prisons and workplaces, supporting local health agencies when outbreaks happened and providing respirator-fit training in health care facilities.

It’s unclear to what extent the department will seek new state funding from the Legislature or move around money in its budget to save jobs that haven’t been eliminated yet.

In response to questions about this, Bonaccorso said in an emailed statement that “DOH is continuously evaluating what our agency activities are from the pandemic/endemic response and will match our request with our agency needs for the future of COVID-19.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee noted in an email that the state’s current two-year budget does contain money for some affected programs, such as a mobile health clinic. They also said the governor’s budget proposal released earlier this month calls for additional spending for IT systems established or updated as part of the pandemic response.

“The governor’s supplemental budget continues to support the department’s transition out of emergency response and into recovery, incorporating COVID-19 activities into day-to-day public health operations,” the Inslee spokesperson added.

Nationwide trend

The job cuts in Washington reflect a national trend, said Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist who leads the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health think tank. Castrucci likened the cuts to laying off soldiers after the “worst military conflict in history.”

“It wouldn’t be a foreign nation which undoes our country, it would be a virus,” Castrucci said. “We are laying off the actual people who are here to fight against that possibility, after we lost a million American lives on American soil. It makes no sense.”

Castrucci pointed out that COVID-19 is here to stay, regardless of whether it’s still considered a pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency in May.

“COVID is going to be a cause of death, if not a leading cause of death, for Americans for the foreseeable future,” Castrucci said.

Here in Washington, COVID-related hires were not considered long-term permanent positions by the Department of Health.

Bonaccorso said the agency will take steps to “try and help minimize the impacts of layoffs to the extent possible” and noted that an internal career fair was held last year.

“Employees in COVID-19 funded positions are more than welcome and encouraged to apply for any job opportunities here at DOH that align with their experience and interest,” the Department of Health said in a statement.

Castrucci said Washington is fortunate to have leaders who value public health — which makes it all the more concerning that the department is cutting so many positions.

“If you’re an elected [official], and you’re allowing your health department to shrink right now, the blood of the next pandemic is already on your hands,” Castrucci said.

“States have to step up and fund public health,” he added. “We maintain a police force without the federal government paying for it. Why can’t we maintain a public health workforce?”