It’s the End of an Era: The Public Health Workforce in a Post-Pandemic World

This entry is part 32 of 37 in the series Wide World of Public Health Systems

Amid what appears to be all doom and gloom is one extremely strong flame – we are not unknown. The world knows about public health, and they know its importance.

Except for the World Wars, few, if any, international issues have upended lives as much as the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the public health workforce found that COVID completely took over their professional lives as well. Public health workers are often very passionate about the work they do, and early on in the pandemic, being in public health was extremely rewarding. As the pandemic wore on and public leaders were harassed more often, the public health workforce experienced additional stressors and burnout became increasingly prevalent. Through all of these ups and downs, it is estimated that over 70 percent of the public health workforce were in a COVID-19 response role at some point during March 2020 to January 2022. So when on May 11, 2023, the pandemic officially ended, public health workers may wonder “so what now?” The answer is quite likely simple for some and extremely complicated for others.

First and foremost, despite the declared “end” of the pandemic, COVID-19 response is not going away. As Dr. Tedros, World Health Organization’s Director General, stated at the 76th World Health Assembly, “The end of COVID-19 as a global health emergency is not the end of COVID-19 as a global health threat.” The most prominent change is what COVID-19 response will look like and how it will be conducted. Disease investigation is both an Essential Public Health Service and a Foundational Public Health Service. COVID-19 emergency responses are being folded into existing structures and programs to become part of ongoing transitions to sustainable public health practices. This means that while COVID-19 vaccines, tests, treatments, and reporting will remain, there will be some changes. Vaccines, tests, and treatments may not be free or as readily available as during the COVID-19 emergency. Since fewer dollars will be allocated to COVID-19 response, finding ways to track the disease (with potential crossovers to other diseases) will be instrumental. For example, surveillance will likely switch to more passive forms, such as those using waste water, and COVID-19 tracking will be grouped together with other respiratory and enteric viruses within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Respiratory and Enteric Virus Surveillance System (NREVSS), which include influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) among others.

There is also a need to look at the relationship between public health and the communities they serve in the aftermath of the pandemic. While the COVID-19 pandemic has taught the United States the importance of public health and its workforce, trust was broken on both sides. Public health officials experienced undue harassment and burnout, but the field also lost some credibility as a result of communication failures. Thus, one of the most important next steps for public health and the workforce is to imagine how communication could have been improved during the COVID-19 pandemic and how we can do better next time. We also need to do right by our burnt-out staff and invest in addressing the challenges they experienced and building the future public health workforce today. In February 2022, I wrote a blog on five questions public health departments should be asking themselves to prepare for the post-COVID world. Though these questions were written over a year ago, they are still the same questions agencies need to be asking themselves to provide stability as the world returns to a new normal:

  1. How are you addressing workers’ current and future needs?
  2. How are you addressing your workforce gaps?
  3. How are and will you handle staffing changes?
  4. What is your succession plan?
  5. Are students equipped to join the workforce?

In the same speech as quoted above, Dr. Tedros also said, “When the next pandemic comes knocking – and it will – we must be ready to answer decisively, collectively, and equitably.” Despite communication failures and mistrust, a recent survey by the de Beaumont Foundation found that 90 percent of United States adults rated public health departments as more essential than schools, fire departments, police departments, parks, businesses, and libraries. Amid what appears to be all doom and gloom is one extremely strong flame – we are not unknown. The world knows about public health and they know its importance. What we need now is for public health workforce leaders to be more comfortable with visible roles, working to build and rebuild trusting relationships with local leaders, advocates, business owners, and residents. This way, when the next emergency occurs (pandemic or other), the public health workforce can truly promote and protect the health of people and the community where they live, learn, work, and play.

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Author Profile

Chelsey Kirkland
Chelsey Kirkland, PhD, MPH, CHW (she/her) is a researcher within the Center for Public Health Systems at University of Minnesota, School of Public. During her time there, she has collaborated on numerous nation-wide, mixed-methods research projects working to support and build-up the public health workforce. Her background is in a variety of public health issues including health equity, health disparities, social determinants of health, community health workers, and physical activity. When not working, she enjoys being outside with her family and dog. Her favorite activities include running, water-skiing, and playing violin.
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