Little-known public health councils are key to public health but chronically underfunded

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the limits of New Mexico’s understaffed and highly centralized public health system. 

Unlike most other states, New Mexico does not have county-based health boards. Instead, public health services like vaccination have traditionally fallen to the chronically understaffed state health department, which has struggled to contain the pandemic’s spread. “The big lesson is that we’ve underfunded public health,” said Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “Our infrastructure was woefully inadequate and now we’re paying the price.”

That includes funding for the state’s 42 county and tribal comprehensive community health planning councils that, in the absence of local health boards, fill an important role identifying local public health gaps and needs. Many of the health councils have gone beyond their statutory mandates, in recent months, to pitch in with local COVID response efforts – helping to coordinate local testing and vaccination efforts, get word out to local residents about where they can get booster shots, and at times serving as an important channel of communication between state health officials and local governments. 

But the health councils are woefully underfunded, despite legislation passed in 2019 that expanded their mandates and directed the health department to provide them more funding.

New Mexico drags feet on public health task force sought by lawmakers

In March, as the state scrambled to vaccinate New Mexicans after a surge in COVID-19 cases that overwhelmed hospitals nationwide, lawmakers passed legislation asking the health department to convene a task force to strengthen the state’s public health system. The panel would be one of the first of its kind in the U.S. and as other states look to do the same could serve as a model, according to American Public Health Association Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin. But five months later – and with less than four months remaining to prepare its recommendations for lawmakers – the task force has not met and it’s unclear when it will. 

“I’m worried,” said New Mexico Public Health Association President Shelley Mann-Lev. “We have not been given any explanation for the delay. …

A century of federal indifference left generations of Navajo homes without running water

When Julie Badonie was growing up in the small Navajo community of Tohatchi in the 1940s, her father drove a horse-drawn wagon early each morning to a nearby spring. There, he filled wooden barrels with water the family would use that day to drink, cook, and wash. 

Badonie, the youngest of seven children, including brothers who fought in World War II and the Korean War, or one of her siblings would go along. She remembers it as fun. At home, a hose siphoned the water into buckets to bring into the house. Badonie left for boarding school in kindergarten, first just a few miles across town, then several days’ travel away in Crownpoint, where an older sister worked as a cook, and eventually, all the way to Albuquerque for high school.

COVID disparities force a public health reckoning

The coronavirus feels the way it looks in widely circulated images, said Cleo Otero: like a thorn. “That’s how it felt inside my body, especially my lungs. It was painful. Like it was scratching the inside of your body. I could really literally feel the virus inside my body.” 

Otero’s first clue she was sick came at the laundromat in Albuquerque where she usually buys a bag of spicy chips as she waits on her clothes.