Five Months In, Our Pandemic Battle is Far from Over
By Chrissie Juliano, Executive Director, Big Cities Health Coalition
Nearly five months ago, I received an invite from a colleague at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) to join a call discussing the first case of coronavirus in the state of Washington. While driving back from a ski trip with my family on a Sunday afternoon in January, I called in, along with Big Cities Health Coalition (BCHC) chair, Sara Cody. She and I texted after the call, and oh how I wish we were wrong that day.
- Me: “This going to blow up, no?”
- Sara: “Yes.”
About a month later, the County of Santa Clara, where Dr. Cody is the Health Officer, would confirm the first case of known community spread in this country. What we didn’t know then, but do now, is that COVID-19 was already spreading in many of our communities without our knowledge.
Looking back, it is clear that we, as a nation, have wasted precious time. We shut down our communities, our schools, and our commerce for months. The privileged among us started to work from home, while our kids who had access to internet and laptops attempted to learn online. Many others lost their jobs. As cases rise, cities across the country are facing the possibility of additional shutdowns.
We took these actions in March to slow the spread, ready the health care system, procure more personal protective equipment (PPE), and implement plans for contact tracing and other community interventions that would provide some measure of defense against COVID-19. We were hopeful that these activities would soon allow us to resume living with some semblance of normalcy, until there is a broadly available vaccine. Unfortunately, as a nation, and in some places more than others, we greatly squandered this time. And, because of mixed messages and a blatant disregard for science coming from leaders at the highest level of government, we are nowhere near where we should be in our collective fight against this coronavirus pandemic.
Halfway through 2020, and still months away from administering the first doses of a vaccine, our “window is closing” to “contain the virus,” as Alex Azar, HHS secretary said this weekend. Even so, there are still a number of key things we can all do to seize this opportunity and protect the safety and well-being of our fellow Americans.
- Stay home if you can: When you do go out, wear a face covering and social distance. Hike, walk, bike, exercise, and live, but do so as safely as you, and those around you, can. Remember that we are only as healthy as the least healthy among us. Your decision to hop on a plane or go sit inside at a bar can contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Most importantly, now, and always, if you feel sick, stay home!
- Support your local and state health officials and listen to their guidance: Health departments have planned and trained for an event such as this for years. The mission of those who work in governmental public health is to prevent disease and death. It’s just that simple. Much of our field, and BCHC members in particular, believe we need to do this by advancing equity to support and promote health, indeed it is part of our organization’s mission. It is also important to encourage your local and state elected officials to support lead health officials, those who are often the face of the agency, as well as all of their staff working tirelessly to stop the pandemic. In most cases, health officials are appointed by elected lawmakers such as mayors, county commissioners, governors, and others. While some Americans who are unhappy with perceived threats to their personal liberty regarding stay-at-home or face covering orders have been vocal, the vast majority of the American public understand what needs to be done. Public health officials need to know that we support their efforts.
- Listen to data and science, not partisan politics: Public health has been “political” for years – we’ve dealt with HIV, family planning, immunizations, and more recently, police brutality, and structural racism, all of which affect the health of the population. But until now, the field has not been a partisan litmus test. Wearing a mask or believing the numbers of deaths and/or cases of COVID-19 that you are seeing on tv shouldn’t depend on your politics. Full Stop.
- Be vocal with not just your local/state officials, but your Senators and Representatives, and VOTE: Our public health system is funded by federal, state, and local dollars. The pandemic response, while diffuse by design in some regards, has been largely funded by dollars that the federal government sent to the states. That said, many local communities have not received new resources to support the current response. Others still do not have the testing capacity/capability they need in the short term despite the federal government suggesting “anyone” can get a test. The public health system has lost at least 50,000 governmental positions in the past decade and is consistently under-resourced and under-funded. For too long, public health has been an afterthought to our health care system. You can reach out to your Members of Congress – tell them what you care about, what you’re seeing in your community, and express your support for funding and resources to keep us all healthy and safe. And also, you need to vote – this year and always.
- Don’t forget, we are *truly* all in this together: Your daily actions have an immeasurable effect on others, which is an incredible responsibility that each of us carries with us now more than ever. By sitting inside at a restaurant or a bar, for example, you are not just putting yourself and your loved ones at risk, but the servers and other patrons. My family has made a point of supporting our local businesses by ordering take out while the stay-at-home order was in effect in our area. Now, based on our personal risk assessment and guidance from our local health officials, we visit restaurants that have outdoor, social distanced seating with appropriate precautions such as face coverings. We need to support businesses in our community and reward good corporate behavior. And, we have to remember the sacrifices that others are making, which may be more challenging than those we are experiencing and contribute to the greater good ourselves.
I want to reiterate what many of my colleagues have shared in various places – this pandemic is not over, and it will not be over until we have an effective vaccine that is available to the vast majority of the world’s population. Together, we can limit the pandemic’s spread and protect the health of our neighbors. Even as communities “reopen,” we must all be smart and careful. Our lives, and the lives of so many others, depend on it.