COVID-19: Year Three

As we mark the beginning of our third year of COVID-19, things appear so different than they did just a year ago. In March of 2021, vaccinations were beginning to become available and there was hope that they signaled the beginning of the end of the pandemic, here at home and globally. We know now that while vaccinations and recommended boosters are remarkably effective at protecting against hospitalization and death, COVID itself is likely here to stay as we move from a pandemic to endemic situation. We will all have to adjust our long-term thinking in order to make sure we keep each other safe, especially those most at risk. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned this past year:

  • ‘Hard-to-reach’ for whom? While I’ve heard a lot about ‘hard to reach’ populations, we’ve found that most communities are easy to reach by those who know them. By investing in approaches that fund and resource CBOs and their deeply rooted networks and existing relationships, we reach people in the languages they speak, by someone who is connected culturally, and whom they trust. Our Together Toward Health initiative has assisted more than 840,000 systemically excluded Californians with vaccinations, working in more than 50 languages. Data platforms like our Healthy Places Index, and research, help us find and reach people better.
  • We are all public health. From schoolteachers staffing rapid antigen test clinics, to community centers providing emergency meal bags and COVID prevention information, to pastors hosting vaccine clinics in the parking lot after services, everyone has a role to play in making public health stronger, more effective, more accessible and more equitable. These critical public health workers are preventing COVID today—and are ready to work in their communities tomorrow on other important health issues including chronic disease prevention, climate change, finding homes for the unhoused, and so much more. This is our public health workforce of tomorrow. Let’s do everything thing we can to keep them successful, starting with dependable funding.
  • We work best when we work together. None of us can go it alone, and that is true at a systems level, too. A local health department may have the vaccine supply, and a CBO knows where the best spot is for a mobile clinic. A foundation or governmental organization may have millions to get out the door, and a non-profit public health organization can help them get it out quickly, in the most targeted, equitable and effective way. Healthcare system clinicians know their patients well, and serve as trusted messengers as well, and are overburdened and need the backup provided by a robust public health workforce. Every part of our public health infrastructure is critical, has a vital role to play, and brings specific kinds of expertise to the table. We need to stay connected, value each other as experts, and make sure there is funding, political support and resources for everyone.

As I think about what’s next, I’m more conscious than ever of some of the issues that have been under-attended in the last few years, including substance use, mental health and climate change, as well as the structural injustices that contributes to the disproportionate impact of these issues on our most systemically excluded communities, particularly BIPOC and low income communities. I am hopeful that the lessons we’ve learned this year will lead to a more coordinated, effective and equitable path to health in the future. Together.

Mary Pittman

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