By Juanita Carnes FNP, Board of Health chair
Today’s article is for Joe, Deb, Evelyn, Thomas, Steve, Cheryl, Crystal and Kathi from Juanita. Massachusetts is continuing to lead the nation with increasing vaccination rates and decreasing COVID cases and deaths. Helping guide the citizens of the Commonwealth out of the pandemic are the unseen heroes, Public Health Department directors and their staff. There are many heroes of this pandemic but today, I would like to take the opportunity provided to me by The Westfield News to pay homage to the City of Westfield’s Health Department. I have sat on the Health Board for 26 years. Never have I been prouder of how this department pulled together and faced the seemingly unsurmountable task of trying to keep the citizens of this community alive and healthy.
Public Health Departments are the least political of all municipal departments. We are mandated by state guidelines to protect public health. In simplistic terms, we are supposed to focus on what is best for the public health. History has shown those decisions are not always popular with other city government, businesses and individuals in the community. Our role promulgated by the state allows us to make many decisions without the input, vote or approval of the city council and mayor. We are often unfairly perceived as not caring about the businesses in town when we make evidence based decisions to improve the public health. Municipal public health departments were created in the 19th century to improve sanitation conditions and decrease mortality from infectious diseases. Each population since then has faced health challenges. Public health is involved with surveillance of causes and consequences of diseases to develop and coordinate collaboration of solutions for public health issues. One of the essential functions is to inform, educate and empower the public. In recent years, the need for public health has expanded and become more complex. Yet federal, states and local investment has declined forcing health departments to triage a community’s health needs. COVID-19 has exposed these issues and created a greater burden. Departments have had no capacity to address other public health duties. They faced the challenge of being first line in controlling the spread and putting emergency operations into place. They faced a new challenge of the politicization of this pandemic, mistrust and criticism of public health and science, inconsistencies in national guidelines, staggered spread of the virus, barriers in exchanging information and unprecedented public fear, anger and frustration. Over two hundred public health leaders have left their job because of the pandemic. Social media played a huge role in the harassment of public health officials. Some leaders received death threats. Protests were held at the homes of public health officials. A National Academy of Medicine statement reads, “COVID-19 provides a stark reminder of the tremendous social value of robust public health systems and the harrowing consequences when those capabilities are allowed to atrophy.”
Here in our hometown, second floor of city hall, our health department director Joe Rouse led his team throughout the pandemic day in and day out beyond the usual 9-5 Monday through Friday hours while the rest of city hall employees were required to stay home. Daily they gathered the most recent information and updates providing guidance and regulations for the city. Maintaining nearly daily contact with the state public health department, Joe assured accurate and up to date actions were in place. The team coordinated with Emergency Management and worked closely with other essential departments. Nursing focused on tracking positive cases and quarantining those directly exposed, an overwhelming task. At the beginning of the outbreak, inspectors were hand delivering quarantine notices. Local food and drink establishments were assisted in coping and adapting to COVID regulations. All hands on deck, plus more were focused on the work of the pandemic. This included many new and changing responsibilities requiring the ability to step outside their normal roles. School nurses joined in to help. Sadly, our department received more than their share of criticism and lack of support from many in our community. One cannot measure the emotional toll on this dedicated and caring group of professionals who work tirelessly for the health of our community.
Personally and professionally, I extend my deep appreciation to these amazing people. I am thankful that the stress of this pandemic has not driven them away. Hopefully, this community realizes what an asset each of them are individually and as a team. Please take a few minutes of your time to reach out and voice your appreciation for their dedication to our community and your health during the pandemic and every day.
Dedicated health department members who have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic are: Debra Mulvenna RN, Assistant Director Evelyn Bristol RN, Steve Cipriani, Health Inspector Thomas Hibert, Health Inspector Cheryl McMordie, Office Manager Crystal Dugay, Kathi Cotugno, CORE coordinator Other Board Members: Margaret Doody, Stan Strzempko MD.
WE KEEP WORKING TO KEEP YOU SAFE
Wear your mask when appropriate or requested. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. Avoid large gatherings. Save lives. Look for us in next Saturday’s edition.