Public Health Leaders Deserve Thanks, Not Death Threats

By Michael C. Lu, Dean, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley,
and Stephen M. Shortell, Dean Emeritus, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley
September 3, 2020

Santa Clara County Public Health Department Director Dr. Sara Cody speaks during a news conference in San Jose. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group via AP)

The unprecedented challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic has required our public health leaders to work creatively and tirelessly to protect and inform the public. Public health is more important now than ever before. Despite this, public health professionals here in California and across the nation have been subjected to misguided criticism and personal attacks. This needs to change if we are truly committed to saving lives and reopening our economy on a permanent basis.

We are fortunate in the Bay Area and surrounding Northern California counties to have inspiring public health leaders guiding us through the COVID-19 pandemic. We thank Drs. Tomás Aragón, Sara Cody, Chris Farnitano, Lisa Hernandez, Scott Morrow, Erica Pan, and Matt Willis—the health officers from the immediate Bay Area—and Drs. Ron Chapman, Olivia Kasirye, Sundari Mase, Bela Matyas, Edward Moreno, Karen Relucio, Aimee Sisson, and Nancy Williams—officers from the surrounding counties—for their evidence-based collaborative leadership during these difficult times.

Lives were saved because of their efforts.

These leaders reached out to the community to work with them in tracking five key indicators of progress:

  1. ensuring that the total number of cases and hospitalized patients is flat or decreasing;
  2. that there is sufficient hospital capacity to meet residents needs;
  3. that sufficient testing (at least 200 tests per 100,000 residents) is occurring each day;
  4. that there is needed case investigation, contact tracing, and isolation/quarantine capacity; and
  5. that there is at least a 30 day supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare providers.

It is not by chance that the COVID-19 outbreak has been less in Northern California than in many parts of the nation or that we  generally flattened the curve sooner, likely resulting in thousands of lives saved. As a result, we are now better prepared to address the recent increase in cases and manage the long-term consequences before a safe vaccine becomes widely available.

Unfortunately, support for our public health leaders has not extended throughout the state or the nation. Over the past few months, 27 public health officers have resigned, retired, or been fired across 13 states, including seven resignations in California. It is understandable that we are all frustrated with the sheltering in place restrictions but personal attacks on our public health leaders will not help us reopen sooner or safer. Much of our freedom to live healthy and productive lives come from public health measures that limit the freedom of individuals and corporations to cause harm to others. These include smoking bans in public places, clean air and water laws, food safety regulations, seat belt requirements, and vaccinations to prevent communicable diseases among other advances.

The root cause of the current unrest may be that, as a country, we have gone overboard with concern for our individual rights relative to the wellbeing of the community as a whole. Our public health leaders are committed to protecting the health of the population as a whole. In particular, they are the protector of those in our society who are most vulnerable.

There are three things we can all do to ensure the health of our communities—and our economy—now and in the future. First, in the face of the current pandemic ,follow the advice of our public health leaders on masking, distancing, hygiene, and avoiding large gatherings of people. Second, advocate for increased investment in housing, education, and other social determinants of our health. Third, support our public health leaders. Chronic underfunding of public health has left them understaffed and under-resourced to do their jobs well. They need increased resources and staff to fully protect the public’s health now and in the future.

The major lesson from the COVID-19 experience is that we can no longer take public health for granted; the world needs public health. Its importance on a daily basis is now evident. Support for public health needs to remain central in the future if we are not to repeat the human suffering and economic impact of the current moment in time.