Public health profession gains a higher profile, but not without pain
By Dennis Archambault
Regardless of the media platform one follows, most people know more about public health than they did a year ago. They understand the terms “lockdown,” “social distancing,” and “masking.” They understand the momentary agony of the Covid nasal test. They may even understand contact tracing. Some see public health orders as onerous – a violation of personal freedom and its governmental overseers as “tyrants.” Others understand public health as necessary and intended for the greater good; well worth the short-term inconvenience of social alienation and economic distress – after all, we adapt.
People now know that there are public health officers with a, responsibility to the population at large. They realize the importance of their professional opinion and guidance, as well as how understaffed and underfunded their functions are. Nearly 200 years since John Snow got the world to address community health threats during the cholera epidemic in London, the profession has greater relevance (despite efforts by some leaders to delegitimize it). Most socially-conscious people know that public health is an essential function of national government – if not national security.
A month from now will mark the first time our president received intelligence briefings as to the danger the coronavirus outbreak poses for the United States and the world. Since March, public health officials have been under tremendous, almost constant stress. In this account from Mississippi (https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/nation/coronavirus/2020/12/06/analysis-public-health-officials-under-strain-amid-covid-19-pandemic/3852187001/) one public health official confronts misinformation. We can understand why Dr. Thomas Hobbs, an infectious disease specialist who heads the Mississippi public health department, was outraged by an urgent care administrator who accused him and the state of overestimating the numbers of Covid infections: “How many times do I have to tell people? … One person is a case. If you tested a person 3,000 times, it’s one case. Quit buying into crazy nonsense. This is dangerous. People are dying. Quit making up stupid excuses, all right? … We’re working here all night and people are making up B.S. Unbelievable.”
Just like questioning masking, distancing, prudent management of exposure in public places, these are all reasoned decisions which, ultimately, an elected official must account for in the public arena. The frustrations are certainly similar in Michigan where we have experienced armed protests, resistance from within the state legislature, open defiance by a barber, gym owner, and restaurant group. This past Thanksgiving, many people were still unwilling to compromise their freedom of movement and cultural traditions. As a result, the numbers – real numbers – of people infected with the coronavirus grew.
The vulnerability of the public health profession, and those who practice it in this environment, is evident, as is the political, economic, and social fallout from the pandemic. But there may be a silver lining from this experience and its multifaceted public debate. We now will have a masked president who ran on a platform that respects the role of public health. He articulated the importance of science and the opinion of experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. And as a leader, he has asked Americans to wear a mask for the first 100 days of his presidency.
Crisis creates an opportunity for innovation. Just as virtual communication technology has gone mainstream, so has public health, for better or worse. It is no longer invisible. It may be scorned for various reasons, but it has a profile. This pandemic may lead to advances that we cannot even imagine.
Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.