As the entire world has turned its focus to combating the COVID-19 pandemic, many events and celebrations have been canceled, postponed or simply forgotten.
At the Anchorage Health Department, each year we look forward to National Public Health Week (April 6-12, this year) as a time to celebrate and recognize the important role public health and our employees have in our communities. This year more than ever, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the work of public health front and center as our world, nation, state and municipality implement policies and solutions to protect us from a new virus with no current treatment or vaccine.
The current pandemic highlights the need to support essential public health activities such as disease surveillance, epidemiology, laboratory capacity, all-hazards preparedness and response; policy development and support; communications; community partnership development; and organizational competencies. Across the nation, public health services have been underfunded for at least a decade, which has impacted the ability to modernize, retain skilled workforce and address emerging threats.
At our small but mighty local health department, our response ramped up quickly in January when we assisted with the successful repatriation flight of U.S. citizens from Wuhan, China. It has evolved into a personnel-heavy effort that requires the mobilization of many resources to investigate cases, manage supplies and volunteers, conduct risk communications, coordinate with governmental and healthcare partners, and plan for the next phase of response. Work that would typically take a week or even a month must be accomplished in 24 hours in order to prepare for the worst-case scenarios of a quickly evolving situation.
Right now, our public health nurses and nurses from the Anchorage School District are working together to monitor the health and safety of our community to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Our emergency preparedness staff is assisting the Municipality of Anchorage’s Emergency Operations Center with the critical planning for a potential surge in COVID-19 cases. All the while, the rest of our staff is continuing to find ways to provide critical services to our community’s most vulnerable members at a challenging time. I applaud them and thank them for their commitment to our community and passion for our community.
Despite the burden and challenges that we face each day, we’re grateful to have a network of partners in Anchorage and Alaska who have stepped in and worked together to help fill the gaps. We also have an army of community helpers who have transformed the health response at the community level. For National Public Health Week, I would like to thank everyone who has stepped up to make this work possible.
We see our neighbors putting teddy bears in windows to provide families with little ones a welcome distraction. We see younger generations checking and protecting their elders. We see social media influencers sharing the message to stay home.
Through these actions, each of you are making a difference and giving us needed hope to make it through this challenging time. Through these actions, we are showing that our community is resilient and we will help each other.
When crisis comes to resolution, it is critical for the health and safety of our community to not just address the short-term needs created by this pandemic. We must then turn our efforts to the long-term readiness of our community, state and nation. Where we live, learn, work, worship and play affect each of us and can determine our health and life expectancy.
Working together, we can build healthier communities and, eventually, the healthiest nation. But we need your continued help to get there. Once we’ve overcome the challenges of COVID-19, let’s keep helping each other and starting conversations with our neighbors. Let’s keep partnering across public and private sectors to make sure decisions are made with the public’s health in mind. Let’s make Anchorage the healthiest place to live, work and play.
Natasha Pineda, MPH, is the director of the Anchorage Health Department.
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