WASHINGTON — Eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local public health departments that were already struggling with too few workers and too little money have been pushed to the brink — and for some, beyond the brink.
“My staff is burnt out, overworked and underpaid,” Dr. Mysheika Roberts, health commissioner with the Columbus Public Health Department in Ohio, told U.S. House members on Wednesday. “Some are leaving the field entirely, unable to contribute any more to the work they once loved.”
“Simply put,” Roberts added, “their tank is empty.”
She and other public health officials from Kansas and Louisiana painted a bleak picture to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis during a hearing on the challenges facing public health departments.
While some of those problems have intensified during the pandemic, such as harassment and vitriol from those who refuse to believe the science behind vaccines, other issues, like a lack of resources, have been mounting for decades.
Roberts described how an emergency-preparedness unit that once had 20 staffers was down to five by the time the pandemic hit. Staffers from across the public health agency, some whose jobs have little to do with infectious disease response, have been called into the all-hands-on-deck fight.
The result? Staff fatigue and early retirement, while those who remain on the job have faced harassment and challenges to the authority of public health agencies.
Anger over mask mandates
Officials from across the country told similar stories.
Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a health officer in the Wilson County Health Department in Kansas, said a local sheriff volunteered to escort her to her car after a public meeting on mask mandates, because he was worried about the angry residents who spoke at the meeting.
McKenney, who is still employed by the rural health department, said she was later told that her job would be opened up for applications because she focused “too much on health and science, and not enough on business.”
“Many of my colleagues have experienced worse harassment than me, by the general public and elected officials, but some have not been able to speak up for fear of retaliation,” McKenney told the committee. Read more