WASHINGTON — Years of cuts to Florida’s public health funding have left the state especially unprepared to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new Kaiser Health News / Associated Press investigation.

What You Need To Know

  • LINK: Read the Kaiser Health News / AP report

  • Florida was "flat-footed" before pandemic hit, researcher says

  • Report says most significant drop in funding came under Gov. Scott

  • Sen. Marco Rubio says report sends mixed message

Researchers found cuts to resources, staffing and mixed messages from public officials left the state of Florida unable to adequately respond to the worst health crisis in a century.

“They were flat-footed before this all hit,” said Laura Ungar, who helped lead the investigation for Kaiser Health News.

Over the last 10 years, local health departments in the state spent 41 percent less per resident.

“Everybody told us more people, more money equals a better response,” Ungar explained. “You need to have people to do contact tracing, give the vaccines when they become available, get the message out to people.”

While departments nationwide experienced cuts in spending, Florida saw significantly more, which researchers found contributed to the state’s ability to manage the outbreak.

“That’s state funding. I haven’t been there for a long period of time,” said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in an interview with Spectrum News.

"I left the state legislature in 2008. There were budget cuts that began in ‘07, ‘08, it appears that some of those were never restored to local health agencies,” he added.

The report found the most significant drop in funding came under governor and now Sen. Rick Scott.

“The majority of the positions eliminated were vacancies that were dormant, and had no impact on the Department’s ability to serve the public under Gov. Scott,” said Sarah Schwirian, a spokeswoman with the senator’s office in response to our request to comment. 

"Any assertion that efficiencies that were made reduced the ability to respond under Governor Scott is false and misleading,” Schwirian said. 

The report found mixed messages from public officials also hampered the state’s efforts to respond to the virus.

“People in one county have a mask mandate, the next county they do not. What is the message you’re getting about wearing a mask. It’s a mixed message,” Ungar said.

Rubio said the report sends a message about how states should allocate their resources moving forward. 

“One of the things I think we will need to reexamine as a country is a reinvestment in our public health systems across the country. That’s a state function, but there can be things the federal government can do,” Rubio said.

The next big challenge will be deploying the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. A lack of public health infrastructure can make the task a lot more difficult.