Public health’s jump to the forefront
For the past several months, people have looked to community leaders and public health experts to navigate their way through the pandemic. From the initial guidance on social distancing to implementing phases of reopening, public health officials have become familiar faces, holding regular press conferences, providing updates and offering a sense of stability. Even if the messages change, their presence stays the same.
The pandemic has required an all-hands-on deck response familiar to the public health profession but only seen publicly in times of crisis.
Public health focuses on keeping people within a community safe and healthy, taking care of concerns on behalf of the general public. But the coronavirus pandemic has brought to light the essential need for public health and has shown the importance of supporting community health overall.
Like her counterparts across the country, Family Health Director Audrey Stevenson and her team in the Salt Lake City Health Department have been thrust from behind-the-scenes roles to the front lines to provide support to the community as part of the COVID-19 response.
“When public health initiatives are successful, no one tends to notice,” Stevenson said. “And that’s a good thing.”
The public health system — federal, state and local — is made up of professionals trained in an array of disciplines. They educate the public about how to reduce threats to their health. They inspect restaurants, coordinate the cleanup of hazardous spills or warn the public about algae blooms in a local lake. The role most familiar to people today is that of tracking the spread of infectious diseases and providing leadership when disasters strike. The fact that their work usually goes unnoticed is a good thing.
When it became clear that coronavirus was going to have a direct impact on the community, Stevenson’s division coordinated the health department’s implementation of an incident command structure. Contract tracing — finding out who might have been exposed to whom — was the first order of business. Quarantine and isolation units were also created for those who required shelter as part of social distancing measures.
When public health initiatives are successful, no one tends to notice. And that’s a good thing.
— Family Health Director Audrey Stevenson, Salt Lake City Health Department
The pandemic has been unprecedent, Stevenson said, bringing new challenges to a staff that has shown resilience and willingness to do whatever needs to be done to protect the community. As a practitioner faculty member in University of Phoenix’s Master of Public Health program, Stevenson is learning from her experiences and helping educate the next crop of public health professionals to better manage future crises.
Stevenson and her team are now trying to figure out how to provide the usual public health services — from provision of immunizations to reopening swimming pools — when staffers are working long hours on the pandemic response.
Looking ahead, she is working with partners in the community and state health department on a plan for how the COVID-19 vaccine, when it is available, will be administered.
For the University, looking ahead means educating students in the Master of Public Health program with the competencies required by future community leaders, said Heather Steiness, associate dean of the College of Health Professions. For instance, students will learn how complex systems impact population health, and how to effectively lead efforts to identify and address health concerns.
They’ll also learn how to form partnerships in the community and develop policies to guide public health issues. Leaders need to understand that research undergirds every decision, and that monitoring and evaluating public health initiatives is also important, Steiness said. The profession is a network of systems working together to keep communities healthy.
Whether the public health need is a communicable disease outbreak, reducing disparities in rates of chronic disease or dealing with a natural or man-made disaster, public health responds. Public health professionals are agents of change, regularly preparing for the next event.
Public health crises often put a spotlight on societal inequity, Steiness said. That’s been true during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she predicts will provide case studies for public health classes for years to come—the perfect supplement to a curriculum that develops the skills to lead programs and initiatives that positively impact people’s health and reduce community health disparities
“It’s an excellent opportunity as a nation and in local communities to have these discussions,” Steiness said.