Today we find ourselves in a moment in which those who work to protect the public’s health are on the front pages of all the world’s news everywhere, every hour of every day. In Oregon, these highly trained professionals in our local, state and federal health agencies work behind the scenes to monitor, predict, detect, mitigate and develop strategies to protect the public against this virus.
The COVID-19 forecast we read in the media each day is serious. And yet, from my vantage point as the dean of the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health, chair of the Oregon Health Policy Board and an Oregonian, I am cautiously optimistic. We will get through this if we work together to follow the directives of our health leadership, apply best public health practices and make sound decisions as a society about how we want to plan and prepare for such threats in the future.
We are fortunate in Oregon to have committed and compassionate professionals at every level of the Oregon Health Authority and in our local health departments. They are working around the clock to prepare for and respond to COVID-19. Our city, county and state leaders have already taken very hard, but critical steps to stop the transmission of the virus and to limit the economic and social consequences of our response. There are hopeful signs that Oregon may be “flattening the curve,” presumably because our state acted early and decisively in the pandemic and because Oregonians are heeding those warnings. This effort not only slowed the rate of infections and preserved hospital capacity to deliver the best possible care to every Oregonian who becomes ill, it also allowed Oregon to send 140 ventilators to New York where they are needed most. As we thank our public health leaders with cautious optimism, we also must not waver in our commitment to stop the progression of COVID-19 in Oregon. This epidemic is not over, and we are not done. Our public health practitioners need our support now more than ever as they work tirelessly to protect us.
In this critical moment for our state and our nation, we also must consider how prepared we were for this pandemic and, more importantly, consider how well prepared we want to be for the challenges of tomorrow. Thirty years ago, I was immersed in fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which I thought would be the singular global health threat of my lifetime. In reality, it was the first of what would be a number of emerging disease threats. No one knows what challenges we will face next, but given changes in the ways we live and risks to our natural environment, other threats are certain to come.
The decisions we make today as a society will determine the health of generations to come. Will we be sure that our public health workforce is fully supported by the tools, technologies, policies and staffing that they need? Are we going to choose to invest in national planning, preparation and protection, or will we continue to sideline priority for public health and find ourselves, once again, reacting in the face of the next crisis?
A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine noted that, in some states, as much as half of today’s workforce will be eligible to retire in 2020 and at least 25% of those will choose to do so. This speaks to the importance of supporting the next generation of public health professionals ready to detect, prevent and respond to future global health threats – and doing so on a timeframe that enables them to learn from the experience and expertise of those who have already dedicated their lives to these careers.
Today, more than ever before, we see the critical need for a well-educated, highly trained and well-funded public health leadership and workforce. I am hopeful that this renewed appreciation for the vital role of public health will endure and will spark new investments to conquer emerging diseases, develop new vaccines and train the flood of aspiring public health professionals who want to promote health and well-being in the aftermath of COVID-19.
In this time of shared purpose, we must commit to making these important investments to expand our capacity to prevent and respond to the threats that tomorrow surely will bring. Please join me in thanking those working so hard to protect the public’s health today. And thank them by using the strength of your voice and your support to ensure Oregon has what we need to prepare for the public health challenges of tomorrow.
David Bangsberg, M.Sc., M.D., M.P.H. is a native Oregonian and the founding dean of the Oregon Health & Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health.
This viewpoint was originally published April 15, 2020 on Oregonlive.com.