In July 2019, when I began this journey as NACCHO President, I stood in front of over 1,300 NACCHO Annual attendees and asked the question—“What kind of leader are you?” As important, I asked how their family, employees, and their communities would answer that. The question is even more critical today as the world has seen us all, as public health leaders, spring into action as never before. I challenged each of us to serve as the conveners in our communities and set as my presidential theme to encourage each of us to become the transformational leaders our communities need. Little did we know we would be called merely months later to become those leaders on a national, state, and local level. I am proud and happy to report NACCHO members, staff, and board rose to the task and are continuing to aid our communities through this COVID-19 pandemic. We are the transformational leaders this country has and will need to restore health to our nation and world.
The definition I used for a “transformational leader” came from the book “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. She discussed how Abraham Lincoln exhibited transformational leadership during his presidency. She wrote how transformational leadership “inspires followers to identify with something larger than themselves—their organizations, their communities, their regions, their country.” At NACCHO Annual 2019, we did just that when we talked about the challenges of living in an increasingly polarized society. We identified our “larger than ourselves” answer as our collective desire for every member of our communities to live a happy, healthy, and productive life. That desire is what has guided us as an organization, board, and staff during a time that has truly tested our leadership skills, our community relationships, our courage, and our stamina.
We have been challenged like never before. Friends and community leaders were clamoring to take COVID tests and hospitals, nursing homes, and first responders were begging for more personal protective equipment. As we worked to meet their needs, we had to continue to deliver, often distressing, news to our elected officials and community leaders. We went to work with them on the front lines of the crisis, helping our communities know how they could best protect themselves and their families from this awful virus. We were called to be the voice that stated facts, not fears. We were called to be transformational leaders. Yet, as so many of our peers have discovered, that leadership is not always easy.
Conveying unpopular facts and figures caused some of our peers to face ridicule and even loss of their jobs. There have been a number of our peers at state and local who have retired early, resigned, or even been fired as a result of this pandemic. Not only have we been asked to carry a heavy load, but many continue to worry their next action or decision might be job changing!
In the midst of this time of uncertainty, I want to offer some words of encouragement and why we must continue to be transformational leaders for our communities. When most of us made the career decision to enter healthcare, specifically public health, we did this because we wanted to help people and positively impact our world with meaningful work. No one dreamed how challenging and difficult it would become. Yet, despite the mounting challenges, we need to recognize how our communities need our help now more than ever. My dad once told me, “If you didn’t have problems, you wouldn’t have a job.” His was the true wisdom and spirit of the greatest generation. Dad was right, but what I have also found true is the power of support.
I have received a number of texts, calls, letters of encouragement and even personal acknowledgement from my community. We are all doing great work out there! How many of us have been in public health during a pandemic? Has our response been perfect—of course not! It has been trial by fire. We are writing the book on how public health officials handle a pandemic—and as effective leaders know, you learn by success and failure. Kudos for being on the front line, with hearts set to do the best you can to protect our communities. You all are doing great work out there and I’m so proud of each and every one of you!
I want to again publicly thank the following individuals for sharing their stories of transformational leadership: Dr. Rex Archer, Director of Health for the Kansas City, MO Health Department; Damon Chaplin, Health Director for the New Bedford Health Department (MA); Dr. Nate smith, Director and Arkansas State Health Officer; Dr. Leah Devlin, Chair of the CDC Foundation Board of Directors; Reena Chudgar, Director of Innovation at the Public Health National Center for Innovations; Melissa Lyon, Public Health Director of the Erie Department of Health (PA); and Jennifer Kertanis, Director of Health for Farmington Valley Health District (CT) and incoming NACCHO president.
I want to give a huge shout out to our NACCHO board members this year, our executive committee, and our NACCHO officers—Past-President Kevin summer, President-Elect Sandy Ford, and our new NACCHO President, Jennifer Kertanis. They have all worked so hard for NACCHO this year. I’d like to thank the NACCHO staff for all of their support and encouragement and of course, our fearless leader, Lori Tremmel Freeman, who has done an incredible job and gone where no NACCHO CEO has ever gone before. Lori has balanced untold demands during the pandemic and I am grateful for her leadership. One of the greatest privileges I have had this year is working with our NACCHO board. While challenging us all to be leaders in our respective communities, the same challenge was before our board at the national level and our board rose above and beyond the challenge. While our NACCHO members are now seen as critical leaders at their communities’ table, for the first time ever our board was invited to the White House to be at the national table, as our country faced a pandemic. This did not just happen. In 2019 NACCHO participated in 229 meetings with congressional staff representing 43 states. Our increased communications effort resulted in website visits of more than 800,000!
In late February, we held an exciting NACCHO leadership week where the board visited with 62 members of congress and held 120 meetings on Capitol Hill to advocate for public health funding and programs. The relationships formed through these efforts made NACCHO a valued voice on a national level and I thank our board members for using their transformational leadership to make that happen. Their work also afforded me the honor of addressing the national press club, a first for a NACCHO president in terms of a stand-alone speech, and certainly not the last as our country now has a greater awareness of the role NACCHO members play in the health of Americans. That opportunity along with many others this year, including travel to the National Association of the Local Boards of Health conference in Denver, and public health association meetings in West Virginia, Minnesota, Indiana, and Texas. I also had the privilege of visiting health departments in Memphis, Lubbock, TX, and Fort Worth, TX. I have enjoyed the privilege to represent NACCHO in so many places, and to talk about the importance of NACCHO in representing local public health on a national basis.
“My presidential year changed when I announced the first three confirmed cases of COVID in my own community on Friday, March 13. Since that time, I have been in my community working to combat COVID.”
While these last few months were not what I had planned as NACCHO president, we can’t ignore that while COVID has given us challenges, it has also given us opportunities to serve our communities. We also accomplished a great deal this past year.
NACCHO has and will continue to tell our stories to elected officials, federal, and state partners, the media, and partner organizations—consistently driving home the needs of local public health and, in some cases, defending public health. For example, in October 2019, NACCHO and the Big Cities Health Coalition jointly filed an amicus brief in support of Seattle-King County Public Health (WA), which discussed the importance of applying public health expertise to notifiable decisions, as opposed to issuing notifications solely out of fear of tort liability.
NACCHO will continue going to bat for public health through advocacy. One key legislative win was the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act. NACCHO worked on this law for over two years.
NACCHO will continue to focus on communications and work to beat the impressive 815,106 website visits in 2019. With the arrival of COVID this year, we saw a tremendous increase in the use of NACCHO.org. Where we had typically seen 20,000 page views per month in certain key areas, by mid-March, we were seeing that level of traffic per day. We also produced 33 publications and 50 webinars for our local health departments to share resources and improve learning.
Lastly, NACCHO remains committed to health equity and social justice. This long-standing commitment for over 25 years means that we are especially prepared for the challenges our country faces during these times of unrest and uncertainty.
NACCHO has had a banner year in spite of the challenges! We are the only organization that represents local public health and a strong and vibrant NACCHO is vital and essential for us to achieve that dream of helping every American live a happy, healthy, and productive life.
Stay encouraged my friends and be those transformational leaders our great country deserves. And thank you for allowing me to serve as your president this year. It was an honor of a lifetime!