Public Health is an interesting facet of our society that many people have had little, to no, interaction with. As a public health professional, we like to say that we are doing our jobs correctly if no one knows what we do, because we are keeping people safe and healthy and things are running smoothly. Every so often, though, you will see something in the news about an outbreak of E. coli in spinach, multi-state Hepatitis A outbreaks, or puppies that have made some people sick. Usually public health is involved in identifying these outbreaks and working to contain them behind the scenes. Just how we like it.
When I first began in public health, the new and emerging infectious disease at the time was Zika. I’m sure most of you reading this remember when we were concerned about Zika making its way north and we were concerned about pregnant women contracting the virus. There were reports of children being born with microencephaly after their mother had had Zika. This was a scary time for a lot of us and rightfully so. For me, that brought back memories of West Nile Virus from several years before when I was still in elementary school. At the time, my mother was a public health nurse at the health department where we lived. I would hear stories about what all was going on behind the scenes. The information would change often as the scientists and public health professionals learned more about what was going on. As we learned new things with both of these mosquito borne diseases, we implemented new measures to help prevent people from getting sick.
I’m sure you’re sitting here asking yourself “Why is she telling me this story about something so irrelevant to what is going on right now?!” Believe it or not, I do have a reason for my aside above. Right now, we are living in what we hope to be, a once in a lifetime pandemic. While we have seen stories of Ebola, MERS, SARS, and the list goes on, as Americans we’ve not really seen a disease as widespread and as devastating as COVID-19 since the Influenza Pandemic of 1919. We have not really dealt with a virus that we have no research on. It is a completely novel concept for many of us. As public health professionals, we are fairly comfortable with reading new research that comes out on things we are familiar with. We have a fairly good grasp on the scientific method and understand that guidance and research is ever evolving. We are always getting updated guidance and science and we see it as a way of life at this point. What we tend to forget, and have probably forgotten at some point over the past year, is that the general public doesn’t necessarily deal with ever changing scientific research. When we forget this, it becomes hard for us to understand why the general public has a distrust of all of the information that is continually be spewed all over the news. Sometimes its hard for us to keep up with all of the new information that is coming our way, too.
But, let’s get back to my story about the mosquitoes. As we learned more about Zika, guidance and recommendations changed. There was research being done and mosquitoes were being trapped and tested. Information changed and was updated. The same is happening with COVID. Every day we learn something new about this virus. At the beginning we told you not to wear masks. Now we have a statewide mask mandate. We originally thought it was just flu symptoms. Now we know some have stomach issues or even lose their taste and smell. It sounds like we have no idea what’s going on because we are always changing what we are telling you to do. I promise, though, we always have your health and safety in mind when we give you new information. At the beginning, we needed to save masks for healthcare workers and we didn’t want people to get a false sense of safety from wearing an improperly fitted mask. Now that we know more about this virus, we know that we can protect others around us by wearing a facial covering to contain the virus to ourselves (if we wear it over our mouth AND nose!). Basically, what I’m trying to say is that we know these are crazy times and a lot of things don’t always make sense. We know we are asking you to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do. We get it, we really do.
I’ll leave you with this: “Prevent. Promote. Protect.” Those are the three guiding principles of Public Health. Right now, in this crazy and ever-changing world, public health is still trying to stand by those principles. But now, more than ever, we need your help! Stay safe and stay healthy, friends!
Mikie Strite, MPH, is the SCO Regional Epidemiologist.