Local Scientist: COVID-19 should change society’s perception of public health
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Local Scientist: COVID-19 should change society’s perception of public health

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

I have seen an amazing call to arms by our national, state and local public health workforce in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We will never know how many more people would have become infected and died without the actions that have taken place so far by social distancing ourselves from colleagues, family and friends, having potential cases quarantined, isolating those who were infected, and having our first responders and medical personnel working to save lives on the front line.

These factors also have led to cleaner air and fewer fatal car accidents and parents have learned how much teachers should be valued and that being an educator is a skill and career that should be well-compensated as they impact our public’s health and the mental health of parents and children.

As we open up our economy, we will need to continue our pursuit to monitor the pandemic and the public health workforce is gearing up to increase its effort with more contact tracing. This is a step in which everyone becomes part of the public health workforce by cooperating in what will be a monumental effort to know who may be infected with COVID-19 so we can prevent transmission as possible. Public health efforts to use social networking platforms, mobile health apps such as AZCOVIDTXT and good old fashion telephone calls will help us track and control COVID-19.

We now have information about how lifestyle changes can be used to develop 21st century policies and programs to improve our work-life-environment balance that will contribute to our community’s health. These are ways that public health becomes public and we all need to contribute to help each other. Wearing that mask is to protect others as much as it is to protect ourselves.

A major part of public health is prevention of communicable diseases such as COVID-19, measles and cervical cancer, and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and the majority of cancers that affect the young and old. One of the most important public health prevention measures we can take to improve the health of our society is to addresses the social determinants of health, such as poverty, education, the environment and all the isms that we can define (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.).

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated that our lack of focusing on the social determinants of health has led to excessive deaths during this pandemic but it also leads to excessive deaths every day.

According to the Commonwealth Fund, the World Health Organization, our own United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many other health organizations, the United States ranks far behind other countries when it comes to health outcomes such as infant mortality and the health and financial burden caused by chronic diseases.

We also spend more on health care per capita than any other country using expensive technology to diagnose and treat diseases — having more hospital visits for preventable causes of disease while at the same time seeing physicians less often.

If we want to improve our public health system we need to invest not only in medical care but more importantly in the training of the public health workforce, the invisible prevention roles of public health agencies and improve the social determinants of health. The return on these investments will be more valuable to our daily lives than those we get from Wall Street.

Douglas Taren, Ph.D. is a professor of public health at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and director of the federally funded Western Region Public Health Training Center.

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