There were days, nights and weekends in the early months of the pandemic when Denise Von Bargen was the only person running coronavirus tests at the public health lab in Ventura County. She once had eight or nine employees to assist her, but, one by one, they had all retired or left for other jobs.
Like other public health laboratories in California charged with broad-scale disease testing and surveillance, the Ventura lab received federal and state money for new equipment and short-term hires to bolster its response to COVID-19. But the funding was temporary, and Von Bargen, the director, could not use it to increase the salaries of her employees, who could earn more money doing less work in the private sector.
Operations deteriorated further last month, after the lab lost its license to run routine tests that check the county’s ocean water for deadly bacteria. It appears to have been a clerical error: The licensing paperwork changed, and the staff typically responsible for submitting the application had quit.
“The biggest threat to [public health labs] right now is not the next emerging pathogen,” said Donna Ferguson, director of the public health lab in Monterey County, “but labs closing due to lack of staffing.”
Across California, public health departments are losing experienced staffers to retirement, exhaustion, partisan politics and higher-paying jobs. Even before the pandemic throttled departments, staffing numbers had shrunk with county budgets. But the decline has accelerated over the past year and a half, even as millions of dollars in federal money has poured in.
Public health nurses, microbiologists, epidemiologists, health officers and other staff members who fend off infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV, inspect restaurants and work to keep communities healthy are abandoning the field. It’s a problem that temporary boosts in funding can’t fix.
The brain drain is sapping community health oversight in ways big and small. The people who staff public health labs, for example, run complex tests for deadly diseases that require specialized training most commercial labs lack. While their work is largely unseen by the general public, they touch almost every aspect of society.
Public health labs sample shellfish to make sure it is safe for eating. They monitor drinking water, and develop tests for emerging health threats such as antibiotic-resistant viruses. They also test for serious diseases, such as measles and COVID-19. And they typically do it at a fraction of the cost of commercial labs — and faster.
Public lab directors are typically required to hold doctorates, and they must have appropriate credentials for their labs to be certified.
Ferguson said it feels like there’s a revolving door on her lab, as recent college graduates join for a few months to gain experience, at a starting pay of $19 an hour, and then move on to higher-paying jobs at hospitals. It’s all but impossible to hire qualified staffers for part-time roles, like the ones created with temporary bursts in funding, because of the training required. In California, many lab positions require a public health microbiologist certificate from the Department of Public Health.
California has 29 public health labs, down from nearly 40 before the 2008 recession. A lab in Merced has been without a director for months and could soon close. While there’s no official count of how much the field has shrunk, nearly every lab is missing key staff members, said Godfred Masinde, president of the California Assn. of Public Health Laboratory Directors, lab director for San …….