Public-health leaders in Washington and in health departments across the country are used to making decisions that are painful for communities, businesses and individuals — much like your own medical provider has to sometimes give you bad news or recommend lifestyle changes to improve your health.
These public-health decisions — whether addressing a foodborne illness, measles outbreak, sexually transmitted diseases or the current viral pandemic — are based on scientific evidence and often need to be updated as new information and data become available.
These are hard decisions to make, are never made lightly and never for political reasons. Local public-health leaders understand their decisions that may cause people to lose their jobs or businesses or keep children out of school are undesirable. These leaders are constantly attempting to balance the effects of their decisions against the health consequences of inaction.
In recent weeks and months, we have heard stories about local public-health leaders (and even their families) who have been undermined, threatened and fired, leaving health departments and staff reeling, and impairing their ability to effectively do their jobs. The current attacks on these professionals should not go unanswered by any of us.
When an already understaffed public-health system loses its most valuable resource — its staff and leadership — due to wrongly placed vilification, we not only endanger these professionals, who are committed to protecting our collective health and safety, we also endanger our future health (and that of our children).
Politically motivated attacks on public-health officials are not new, but the current wave of attacks is extreme. Contrasting the current situation with that at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, a time when emotions also ran high, public-health leaders like Jeff Harris (one of the authors) experienced strong criticism — such as for condom programs from social conservatives and for partner-reduction messaging from AIDS activists — but Harris never received death threats.
This time is different — dangerous to our public-health workers and thus to the health of the public.
As leader of the Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, co-author Betty Bekemeier has seen a progression of intense emotion from public health practice partners over this difficult year — from urgency, to sadness, to exhaustion and now to fear. While one would naturally expect exhaustion and sadness from such a lengthy, drawn-out public-health emergency, they should not have to feel fear.
As educators, researchers and supporters of the public health practice community, we are committed to educating the next generation of public health practice leaders and staff, and building public-health capacity. New public-health students and graduates need to know that health care system leaders, policymakers and the public support this lifesaving, critical prevention work to which they are devoting their time and energy. We all need them to continue with their work, to ensure a healthy future for our loved ones and our communities.
Public health practice leaders and staff also need you.
If you live in a community, be kind to and thank the public-health worker who calls you if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, and implore your family and friends to do the same. If you work in or own a business, be understanding of those public-health leaders navigating difficult choices to provide guidelines that keep your co-workers and clients healthy and safe. If you are part of a religious community, lead your faith community in prayer and support for these exhausted and dedicated workers. If you are a policymaker (or if you vote for them!), show your consistent public support for the efforts of our public-health leaders and staff who keep us healthy and alive.
We are grateful to live in a state with exceptional public-health leaders and an amazing public-health workforce. We thank you for joining us in supporting and celebrating them.