Tarrant County’s ability to prevent diseases from occurring in the community just got stronger.

“Prevention separates us from the rest of health care,” Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja said. “Do we do some health care? Absolutely. But we are more focused on preventing diseases from occurring, and we focus on the community at large.”

During his Feb. 7 presentation to the commissioners court, Taneja commented that there is consensus among national experts that public health has been chronically underfunded for several decades, and grants provide funding for predetermined deliverables.

“Americans are growing unhealthier despite the trillions of dollars we spend on health care,” Taneja said. “In 2018, over $4 trillion dollars, some of the highest spending across the globe, was done in America, while half of people over [age] 55 have two chronic conditions—diabetes and high blood pressure being the common ones.”

Taneja went on to say only 3% of that $4 trillion was spent on preventative health care.

“We’re continuing to treat people for illnesses instead of preventing them from occurring,” he said. “Public health investment saves lives before they need saving.”

To help Tarrant County keep up with the needs of prevention in the community, it recently received a $19 million federal grant to support several initiatives. These initiatives include increasing the county’s public health workforce and strengthening its foundation capabilities, which include cross-cutting skills and capabilities needed to support basic public health functions.

“Even though this is a big chunk of money, it’s just one step in the right direction,” Taneja said. “It does not fix the staffing problems that we have, but it gets us to a better spot.”

The grant will pay for 61.5 full-time equivalent positions—28 of those are new positions, and 31.5 are positions that will transition from other expiring grants and will begin being funded through this new federal grant.

TCPH depends on grant funding to help fund the majority of positions on the employee roster. It relies upon 53 different grants to help fund various positions. Taneja said there are 505 filled positions, whereas the organization structure calls for 660 positions.

“Everyone is hiring in public health, so it’s hard to recruit, because they’re hard to come by,” Taneja said. “Prepandemic we were 350 strong, so that tells you how much we’ve had to scale up due to the pandemic.”