How years of underfunding public health left Texas ill prepared for the pandemic

A sign in the COVID-19 unit at a hospital in Edinburg instructs staff members to remove their used personal protective equipment. In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress slashed funding for a program that helped Texas and other states build stockpiles of such gear for front-line health workers. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

In the spring, as public health officials were beginning to see the novel coronavirus spreading in Texas, Danny Updike had bad news and good news for health care workers in the San Angelo region where he works in emergency response.

The bad news was that the pandemic had brought a sudden shortage of masks, gowns, gloves and sanitizer as demand soared and imports from China ground to a halt. Prices on the private market were skyrocketing, and most of what remained in the shipping container that housed the region’s modest cache of personal protective equipment had expired after years of budget cuts prevented new purchases. Rubber parts were disintegrated, elastic bands rotted.

The good news: Some of the decade-old personal protective equipment was salvageable, and it had not yet been thrown away — another result of budget cuts.