Even before the pandemic and disagreements over social restrictions recommended by public health officials across the state, public health agencies in Washington were struggling due to a lack of resources. In recent weeks, firings, resignations and death threats targeting local health officials has led to a staffing crisis in the agencies most responsible for local pandemic response.
Now, as these public attacks further cripple public health agencies, a University of Washington public health expert is calling for action to defend and support public health agencies in communities across the state. The loss of local health expertise resulting from these attacks will have long-term consequences beyond the pandemic.
“Even as our local and state public health leaders and staff work tirelessly and heroically this year to keep us healthy and reduce the load on our hospitals, we have seen countless examples of harassment and threats directed at them,” said Betty Bekemeier, a professor in the School of Nursing and director of the UW Northwest Center for Public Health Practice.
“Public policymakers, leaders of our health care system and the public need to get behind the work of local public health officials,” said Bekemeier, who has decades of experience working with, studying and supporting public health efforts and systems in the Pacific Northwest and nationally. “This is work that generally goes on behind the scenes and that we all deeply depend on for our health and safety, whether we realize it or not. We cannot expect to have healthy communities without them — now or when this pandemic is eventually behind us.”
She added that these experts are the first line of leadership when a health crisis occurs, and the pandemic is just one of many crises these agencies are battling every day. Public health leaders historically have had the respect and relationships in local communities that help them make the tough calls to get a community back on its feet. These tough calls may mean, for example, closing a restaurant that’s not changed its unsafe food handling practices, or sending kids home from school during a measles outbreak if they have not been immunized.
“But that situation has all been turned on its head for no fault of the public health experts in their communities,” she said. “They don’t go into these jobs as politicians. They go into them with backgrounds in science and community-building and, under normal circumstances, that means they have community support behind them during tough situations, like outbreaks or food safety recalls, and that has worked really well.”
Joining Bekemeier in this call for state leaders to take action on behalf of public health workers is Jefferson Ketchel, executive director of the Washington State Public Health Association. Ketchel, who has a graduate degree from UW Bothell, also has decades of experience with public health in the state as previous administrator of Snohomish Health District, Grant County Health District and other positions.
“Some of our public health leaders have been in their jobs for decades. They are passionate about the work, but it is not an easy job. They put in countless hours protecting our health and preventing disease. I am disappointed that we don’t see greater support and more of our elected leaders vocally and visibly behind them,” Ketchel said.
Bekemeier and Ketchel hope that policymakers will show their support for public health workers and be their advocate; that other medical professionals will speak on behalf of the critical role public health workers play in their work and health system. They hope community members will tell their friends, family and neighbors to recognize and thank their local public health officials.
“Because without them, the alternative is more hospital beds and ventilators,” Bekemeier said.