It is truly an honor to serve as NACCHO President during the 2020–2021 term despite the fact that these are the most demanding, turbulent and stressful times for local public health. We are living and practicing public health during a once in a lifetime public health crisis. The pandemic has revealed the consequences associated with years of disinvestment in our public health system. It has reshaped our social norms and challenged us as public health professionals. The pandemic has also further illuminated the systemic and structural biases that disproportionately and unfairly place segments of our communities at far greater risk of poor health and quality of life.
“It’s important that we not miss the opportunity that this crisis provides. I call on all public health officials to leverage the attention public health is receiving—good and bad—to demand and be a part of change.”
It is my sincere hope that through the collective voice of NACCHO and the credibility of our professional organization, my presidency can focus on two specific things: (1) Advocacy for the investment in a robust and adequately funded public health system and (2) Transformation of public health practice that addresses the relationship between structural and institutional racism and other forms of oppression and health inequity.
At all levels of governmental public health, there have been significant cuts in funding over the past 10 years. This has led to significant reductions in a well-trained public health workforce, loss of public health skills within our departments, cuts to programs, inability to build and maintain partnerships, and deterioration and aging of our data and surveillance systems. Now, more than ever, the spotlight is on public health. While some of this has been positive and some negative, we have an opportunity to tell our story, reframe the value of public health, and advocate for what is in the best interest of public health for our communities and our country.
Over the past 15 years, we have witnessed a slow transition in the work of public health to address health inequities. Fifteen years ago, local health departments used the term “health disparities,” which merely described differences in health outcomes without giving pause relative to why those differences existed, or worse yet, blaming individuals for poor choices or lifestyle. Today, more departments are incorporating the social determinants of health into their data collection and advocating for improvements in community conditions that support better health. Some departments are partnering with communities and grass roots organizations to focus more purposefully on the social injustices that have created conditions that give rise to poor health outcomes. NACCHO through its Health Equity and Social Justice Committee has been a leader in helping to shift the work of public health to focus more deliberately on the root causes of heath inequity. Particularly now, as our communities protest the pervasive and ongoing injustices supported by long-standing institutional racism, I challenge all of us to focus even further upstream and lend our public health voices to change.
The pandemic has also wreaked havoc on us personally, our mental health, and for many of us, even our physical health. Nationally, we have seen many public health leaders become marginalized, and in some cases, fired for reporting facts to protect the public’s health. In the face of all this, local public health officials throughout the United States have been tremendous in their steadfast work to slow the spread, advocate for public health actions that reduce risk and save lives. Your work has not gone unnoticed.
I am determined to continue highlighting the efforts of local public health officials across the country while our membership organization amplifies the voices of local public health with our national public health organizations and advocates for what we need with congressional leaders.
I am incredibly proud of the work that is taking place in local health departments across this country, despite the incredible challenges we face. Please take time to care for yourself, draw strength from colleagues, and know that NACCHO and I will continue to champion the critical work that you are doing and advocate for the resources and support that you need.