Unthank: Pandemic straining health department finances

Legislators hear concerns

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County’s health officer told District 24 legislators that her department badly needs more funding from the state due to the strains put upon it by the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Allison Unthank presented the needs of the public health department during a joint meeting of the Clallam County Board of Health and state legislators Sen. Kevin Ven De Wege of Sequim, Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend and Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles — all three Democrats.

She said federal CARES Act funding for public health will run out within a couple of weeks.

“It’s a really critical juncture for appropriate and sustainable funding of public health,” she said.

“We, as we always have, will do everything we can to scrap together to make this work, but we are going to need the support to be able to do that without bankrupting county economies.”

State representatives, who are preparing for the legislative session, which will begin Jan. 11, said that while public health is one priority, relief for businesses affected by shutdowns is another top concern.

Van De Wege said he knew public health was going to be one of the Legislature’s priorities this year.

“I know it’s something we’re going to be focused on, for sure,” he said.

Business relief might come before public health departments, Chapman said.

“Truth be told, we’re at risk of losing the restaurant industry,” Chapman said. “They’re fearful that if they don’t get some relief, there won’t be a restaurant industry.”

Unthank asked for the legislators’ continued support on getting across to the public the science-based and apolitical nature of public health departments’ work.

She said the Clallam County Public Health Department has been fortunate to have support from local government and residents, but that other parts of the state have not been as fortunate.

“We have seen unprecedented attacks on our public health system in our state and across the country,” she said. “We’ve seen health officers fired. We’ve seen bills trying to remove entire health districts in the midst of a pandemic.

“We have to make some very difficult calls that are sometimes unpopular but are based in science and dedicated to the safety of the population,” she said.

“There’s been an unfortunate tendency to pit control of the virus against the economy.”

Unthank said that is a false conflict.

“We can’t get the economy back until the virus is under control,” she said.

She used as an example the fact that health departments have never closed down airlines, but airlines have suffered economically because people are afraid to fly during the pandemic.

Unthank also requested from legislators ongoing sustainable funding for public health even after the pandemic is over.

She said she is aware there are some major budget challenges for state legislators and that “there’s never enough money to go around,” but that public health has been underfunded for decades.

“We went into this pandemic with two nurses and a half-time health officer,” she said, “trying to take on one of the greatest threats to public health and health of our society in generations.”

She said she hoped that the pandemic had shown the critical need of public health.

“I’m hopeful we will find funds to get us through this pandemic and then also remember this when the pandemic is over.”

Clallam County Commissioner Randy Johnson pointed out that the public health department was hard at work even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the pandemic, the office was busy with an opioid crisis, “which hasn’t gone away, by the way,” Johnson said.

Unthank added that the health department also deals with such issues as water quality and infant mortality.

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Sports Editor Pierre LaBossiere can be reached at [email protected]

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