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National Public Health Week: A time to rebuild and refocus

If there’s been any upside to the past year, it’s been the increased awareness and appreciation for public health professionals around the world.

healthcare worker
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

This week is National Public Health Week – an annual time to recognize the contributions of public health and highlight issues that are important to improving our nation. The field of public health may have been a bit overlooked in the past, but if there’s been any upside to the past year, it’s been the increased awareness and appreciation for public health professionals around the world.

Public health professionals have been nothing short of heroes this past year, from the essential workers putting their lives on the line to keep us safe to others who have pivoted to working remotely while ensuring important health resources were still offered. Our public health workforce continues this hard work as the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out across Minnesota.

Without a doubt, the job of a public health professional is never easy. With a seemingly insurmountable list of issues, tight budgets, and limited resources, it can be overwhelming. Add to that a pandemic and the ongoing public health crisis of racism, and it’s easy to see why public health workers are so fatigued right now.

The good news is public health programs across the country have seen a surge in students amid the pandemic. Schools using the common application – a universal application form that students can send to multiple schools — cited a 20% increase in applications to master’s in public health programs for the 2020 academic year. With this fresh vigor, we have a great opportunity to rebuild our workforce and ensure we’re ready before the next public health emergency inevitably crosses our path.

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Lessons learned

There are a few lessons we can take into this next phase of rebuilding the workforce for public health. First and foremost, we need to rebuild with an emphasis on diversity. Public health is designed to serve the whole public, and that means having a workforce that represents the people we’re advocating for. If we want to address the disparities in our communities, we first need to do so in our workforce.

Merry Grande
Merry Grande

Schools across our state — like St. Catherine’s University, St. Mary’s University, and the University of Minnesota — are taking some intentional steps to do just that. They are formalizing programs and strategic plans focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. In addition, this year the U of M’s School of Public Health has announced plans to establish the Center for Antiracism Research and Health Equity, which will advance racial equity through research and community-centered action. Within the Minnesota Public Health Association we are finalizing an Emerging Leaders Cohort focused on advancing health equity in public health practice. With these intentional actions, we’re all trying to do better at representing those who have been underrepresented in our field for far too long.

Another important lesson we’ve learned from this pandemic is how easy it is to burn out – both in the public health profession and in others. While we continue to remain apart, public health professionals need to find ways to come together. From virtual coffee breaks with other public health professionals to special events that provide fresh perspectives, professional organizations like the Minnesota Public Health Association have never been more needed to refresh and recharge our worn-out workforce.

Kathleen Norlien
Kathleen Norlien

As all of us, especially public health professionals, begin to emerge from the fog of this last year, it’s critical that we keep the spotlight shining on public health – and not just during National Public Health Week. The unfortunate reality is that it’s not a matter of if the next public health crisis will come, but when. And if we work together, we can ensure our public health workforce will be ready to tackle it – stronger than ever.

Merry Grande is the executive director of the Minnesota Public Health Association. Kathleen Norlien is the president of the Minnesota Public Health Association.

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