What the U.S. Government Shutdown Means to Your Health

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The United States government shutdown has slowed or halted federal efforts to protect Americans’ health and safety. Now in its 9th day, the shutdown has impacted food safety efforts, flu programs and disease-tracking, scientific research, and the economic and social well-being of families, children, individuals and communities.

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contingency staffing plan involves furloughing 52% of its employees across a variety of agencies and offices, including [1]:

Here’s what the U.S. government shutdown means for many of the programs that American’s rely on to maintain their health.

Food Safety

With 45% of its employees furloughed, the FDA is unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities. Additionally, it has ceased safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs, and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making. Thankfully, the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), will continue to regulate meat and poultry since inadequate monitoring could endanger human life. Only 13% of the FSIS staff are furloughed. At the start of the government shutdown, Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CBS News [2]:

If there’s an outbreak of food-borne illness that affects people in multiple states, we may not identify it promptly.

Although there’s a current outbreak of food-borne illness (salmonella in raw chicken) that’s affecting people in 18 states, the CDC’s investigation and lab resources are unavailable. With the government shutdown, 68% of its staff have been sent home.

Flu Program and Infectious Disease Surveillance

With 68% of its workforce furloughed, the CDC won’t be able to support the annual seasonal influenza program. Not great timing with the U.S. flu season about to start. In addition, the CDC won’t be able to support outbreak detection and linking across state boundaries using genetic and molecular analysis, continuous updating of disease treatment and prevention recommendations (e.g. HIV, TB, STDs, hepatitis), and technical assistance, analysis, and support to state and local partners for infectious disease surveillance.

Scientific Research and Cancer Clinical Trials

At the NIH, 73% of the agency’s employees are furloughed. As long as the government is shut down, the NIH Clinical Center, which typically sees 10,000 new patients each year who have exhausted standard medical treatments and don’t have any other options, will have to turn away ~200 patients every week. Moreover, new clinical trials for experimental therapies and rare diseases have been put on hold. The NIH will not take any actions on grant applications or awards, leaving thousands of academic researchers across the country in professional limbo.

Economic and Social Well-being of Families and Children

The ACF has discontinued quarterly formula grants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Child Care, Social Services Block Grant, Refugee Programs, Child Welfare Services and the Community Service Block Grant programs. During the shut down, new discretionary grants, including Head Start and social services programs, won’t be made.


  1. Contingency Staffing Plan for Operations in the Absence of Enacted Annual Appropriations. Department of Health and Human Services. Fiscal Year 2014.
  2. Foodborne illness monitors return to work at CDC. CBS News. 2013 Oct 8.
About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.