Skip to main content

COVID-19 lessons learned focus on value of public health, complicated recovery

There’s an old saying about elected lawmakers that the more local they are, the more real impact they have on our day-to-day lives. The same can be said for local public health officials, and their expertise has never been more important than during the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 lessons learned focus on value of public health, complicated recovery

The importance of the impact of local public health officials may be one of the biggest lessons learned by the public during the pandemic so far. Other lessons include understanding that moving from response to recovery is complicated and learning how we can relate to each other while practicing social distancing.

Public Health’s Importance

“We really need to listen to the guidance from the local and state public health officials who really know what is going on in their areas and regions,” Julie Crumly, Ph.D., MCHES, ORAU evaluation specialist and senior scientist, said. “There is a lot of information and data to keep up with and situations change hour to hour. So they’re the ones that are best positioned to know what we need to be doing and how we need to change.”

As states continue to lift stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders, Crumly said it’s important to continue to do local health surveillance and rapidly assess situations in real time to identify and implement public health strategies and provide the best guidance to slow or stop the virus spread.

Local public health officials have their fingers on the pulse, so to speak, of local spread. Every community may look different because of how people behave as restrictions are relaxed.

“It’s those numbers at the local level that make up the infection rates at the state level, which get recorded at the federal level,” Freddy Gray, MPH, MCHES, ORAU director of heath preparedness and response and health communications programs, said. “At the local level, we need to see what’s going on and listen to how the locals’ and the states’ strategies to mitigate the spread through non-pharmaceutical interventions, like social distancing, proper hygiene, things of that nature.”

Gray added that local public health departments are among the cornerstones of emergency preparedness, along with health care and emergency management. In addition, every community has its own stakeholders, like faith-based organizations and businesses. Whoever the key stakeholders are, those relationships are built long before a response is needed.

“I think public health and healthcare have done a great job working and building those relationships for years so that when something like a pandemic happens, they are in a better position to work together and strategically help try to mitigate it,” he said.

As safer-at-home and stay-at-home guidelines are being relaxed, national media attention is trending toward a focus on recovery, but public health, emergency management and healthcare entities are still in response mode.

Recovery is complicated

“They’re still dealing with all of the things that they were dealing with a month ago to help mitigate the spread of the virus,” Jennifer Burnette, MPH ORAU project manager and former state medical countermeasures coordinator for the state of Oregon said. “At the same time, they’re looking forward and trying to figure out what’s going to be the best for their communities as needs essentially shift into recovery and even the possibility of a second wave. They’ve got a lot on their plates to be thinking about.”

Recovery is complicated and takes much more time than people may realize, Burnette said, whether during a public health emergency or a natural disaster. It’s not as simple as lifting all of the social distancing guidelines and returning to normal, whatever that looks like.

In the case of the coronavirus, there’s the prospect of continued community spread without medical countermeasures in place, like effective treatment or a vaccine, which make it entirely possible there could be a second wave of illness that will shift us back into full response mode.

“It’s hard to talk about truly what a recovery would look like right now, from my perspective,” Burnette said.

Wherever we are in the continuum between response and recovery at any given time, life is unlikely to return to “normal” any time soon.

“We’re not going back to business as usual before the coronavirus emerged,” Rachel Vasconez, MBA, MPH, ORAU project manager and former acting director of the hospital preparedness program and volunteer coordinator for the state of Georgia, said. “We have to have the mindset of how can I take personal responsibility?” That includes taking our temperature, wearing a mask in public, washing our hands, not touching our faces and not going to work sick.

“We need to continue to do those things and be mindful that we can’t stop doing them just because states are opening up,” she said.

Burnette added that it’s important to stay informed and to seek out legitimate sources of information for how the coronavirus is impacting communities and which nonmedical countermeasures, like wearing masks, are required or recommended. These sources include Johns Hopkins University, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, and state and local health departments.

Mindful of mental health

We all also need to be mindful of the emotional and mental well-being of the people around us as state and local guidelines are relaxed, especially concerning people who are hesitant to venture out because they don’t feel it is safe to do so.

“We need to be able to respect and honor that some people feel uncomfortable and feel scared. We don’t need to belittle that,” Gray said. “We need to take hold of that, help people where they are and help them see that actions are being taken to place them in a safe environment.” These actions include but are not limited to installing plexiglass shields at checkout counters, floor guides to help people maintain physical distance while waiting in line, blocking off seats at a doctor’s office and blocking off equipment at gyms.

“I can practice my social distancing but what guarantee do I have that you’re doing the same thing or that you are handling your life in a manner that’s not going to get you exposed, thereby exposing me?” Gray said.

Wearing masks, keeping your physical distance from others, and washing our hands or using hand sanitizer are about protecting other people from us as much as it is about protecting ourselves from others.

Maybe the biggest lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is that we really are all in this together.


To hear more about lessons learned during the COVID-19 response, listen to the Further Together podcast. To learn more about ORAU’s pandemic preparedness and response capabilities, download our one-pager.