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During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health is more important than ever. 

Public health directors and advisors make frequent appearances in the media for their leadership and expertise, while their colleagues are hard at work behind the scenes. These efforts are helping make our communities safer and healthier, taking pressure off of front-line healthcare workers.

Branches of public health

Public health employees have been hard at work since day one of the crisis. Emergency response directors play a vital role in planning, coordinating community responses, and guiding communities in implementing and maintaining social distancing policies. Their jobs include helping essential businesses set operating procedures to protect employees and customers, such as closing early for sanitation and establishing shopping hours for high-risk individuals.

Meanwhile, epidemiologists and biostatisticians collect and analyze data from case details around the world to learn about the disease and develop future projections. “Where are these cases coming from? Why did they come from there? Who’s most at risk?” says Jason Robertson, associate professor and chair of South University’s Public Health programs and a 20-year veteran of the public health field. “The epidemiologists and biostatisticians are the ones figuring all that out.” 

The resulting models look at the effects of different scenarios and protective actions, demonstrating potential outcomes on communities and healthcare systems. They share the projections with stakeholders such as health educators, policymakers, government leaders, public health administrators, and other healthcare professionals to inform critical public health decisions.

Public health educators and communicators disseminate relevant information, covering everything from hand-washing best practices to advice on how to cope with stress. “The #AloneTogether commercials are an example of a public health campaign,” Robertson says. “Health educators and health communicators develop these and other campaigns to get out precise and accurate information so that people understand what’s happening and what to do.” 

Those in public health policy are investigating how COVID-19 is impacting other aspects of healthcare. Topics they review include if care providers are offering effective telehealth services, if insurance companies cover telehealth, how organizations handle sick leave, and what the overall impact is of these decisions on society. What policies would be most beneficial to people right now and into the future as our society recovers? People working in public health policy aim to find out.

Protecting public health

Public health professionals are united by the central tenet of the field — a dedication to protecting the health of people in their communities. The goal of public health is always to improve society’s quality of life. Even before coronavirus, public health professionals had been working to understand and address the causes of health conditions and disparities and find innovative ways to promote healthy behaviors through educational programs, community outreach, and policy. 

“Public health professionals support health in its broadest terms — social, mental, and emotional. We look at the environment in which a person lives along with the policies that impact individuals,” Robertson explains. “We study and solve health problems in an ecological framework that involves more than just what one thing is affecting you at this moment.” 

In the difficult road ahead, public health professionals will continue to be involved in the work towards a vaccine, tracking the virus, and the eventual relaxing of guidelines for businesses and communities when it is safe to do so. 

Because of the efforts of public health professionals, there has been meaningful change in the United States to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of coronavirus, saving lives and protecting communities. The field of public health is invaluable to towns, states, and the country. There is much uncertainty still ahead, but public health professionals will continue to show up every day to fight for the safety of people and communities.

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