Jim Blumenstock Leads ASTHO Public Health Preparedness Efforts

October 26, 2017|2:01 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Jim BlumenstockJim Blumenstock is chief program officer for health security at ASTHO. His portfolio includes emergency preparedness and response, infectious and emerging diseases, immunization services, and environmental health. Prior to ASTHO, Blumenstock served at the New Jersey State Department of Health and Senior Services for over 30 years, beginning as a sanitarian in 1973 and retiring as deputy commissioner of health in 2005. While serving at the New Jersey State Department of Health and Senior Services, Blumenstock was a member of the department’s emergency response unit, and later served as incident commander for several public health emergencies, including the September 11 and anthrax attacks in 2001. As an expert in public health preparedness, Blumenstock leads ASTHO’s state and territorial preparedness efforts, helping to ensure our nation’s health security.

What lessons have you learned from your experiences working in public health preparedness?

I have observed time and time again the incredible power of community fueled by the human spirit and love of country. Public health leaders must seize every opportunity to cultivate, harness, and channel these resources, talent, and energy. We all know the government cannot work alone to save and sustain life when it comes to serious, complex, or large-scale emergencies. The degree of success for almost every major response hinges on the integration and use of private sector assistance and volunteers. The private sector can bring to bear incredible levels of technological and tactical resources and intellect and stand ready to assist. This not only includes large corporations, but also neighborhood businesses such as pharmacies.

Regarding volunteers, just in recent days, we all have seen how both organized and everyday people have stepped up and truly made the difference between life and death for others, with some making personal sacrifice. Efforts should be redoubled to encourage, prepare, use, and recognize our nation’s volunteers. Lastly, community leaders are our best allies when it comes to organizing and mobilizing constituencies. They also serve as a good judge of our performance and can, and most certainly will, provide feedback that should be taken with an open mind (and thick skin), as we work to improve our preparedness efforts.

How has the field of public health preparedness changed in the last 75 years, and what do you think will be the greatest achievements in the next 75 years?

I have heard some colleagues say that public health preparedness emerged as a result of September 11 attacks, which really isn’t true. We have been doing preparedness and response all along, but the events of that day were seminal in that they transformed what was just a routine practice to a different paradigm. Public health preparedness ascended to a new discipline, profession, and imperative. In the last 15-16 years, we have significantly evolved and made great strides in our preparedness efforts. We have realized many achievements by building human and technological capacity and enhancing capabilities in threat detection, response, and prevention. Public health preparedness is now viewed as a matter of importance to national security and considered a valued and essential partner by the emergency management and law enforcement communities, which was not always the case. Now we are not only “at the table” but have a reserved seat and sometimes even sit at the head!

The future holds great promise in the development of more effective medical countermeasures, better predictive and early warning tools and mitigation technologies, future generations of a more highly skilled public health workforce benefiting from research, accomplishments and lessons learned from those who preceded them, and hopefully a threat environment that is shrinking, not expanding!

How can public health leaders raise awareness around preparedness within the communities they serve?

Overcoming complacency and building community resilience are two means to raising awareness around preparedness. Effective public health leadership is so important in keeping the public engaged in personal, family, and community preparedness for all hazards and threats. The thought that “it couldn’t happen to me” or “it couldn’t happen here” must be disabused because it can. Preparedness must be part of everyone’s everyday practice and engrained in our culture. It is also important for our communities to be resilient to withstand, adapt to, and recover from various disasters. This includes not only having strong and sufficiently resourced public health and healthcare systems in place to respond to and care for those in need, but also social connectedness and improved everyday health and wellness of all members of the community. Public health leaders are strategically positioned and should seize every opportunity to inculcate these important aspects into their full suite of program services and in the policy they develop or help influence.

The Directors of Public Health Preparedness Meeting was held in Chicago this week. How does this meeting help inform the work of state and territorial health departments to improve preparedness efforts in their states and territories?

This year, we hosted the 13th annual Directors of Public Health Preparedness Meeting and are also commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Hospital Preparedness Programs. There are not many events that enlighten, energize, and focus me more than this one does as I have the privilege of spending three days with such a talented and committed group of professionals as the state and territorial preparedness directors and key federal partners. This meeting is one of many ways ASTHO creates a trusted peer group environment, where the exchange of ideas, sharing of experiences, and professional development take place. Relationships are forged that will come in handy when assistance and support is needed from one another during ongoing or future emergencies or disasters.

This year’s program included thought provoking opening remarks from Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health; hurricane preparedness and response lessons learned; the role of public health preparedness in the opioid epidemic response; risk-based funding approaches; radiological and nuclear preparedness efforts; the National Health Security Preparedness Index; medical countermeasures operational readiness; and the reauthorization of the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act. Those in attendance were also treated to keynote addresses by Ed Gabriel, principal deputy assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response, and Steven Redd, director of CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. These leaders provided an overview of their respective office’s immediate and longer term priorities. The agenda is emblematic of the burden of responsibility and diversity of issues preparedness directors face every day and ASTHO is very pleased to play a role in supporting them and you in your mission as stalwarts of our nation’s health security.