NEWARK — A new study, led by a University of Delaware professor, found many essential public health functions and tasks have been limited while the country’s public health workforce responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Jennifer Horney, founding director of UD’s epidemiology program, found public health departments suffered significant reductions in staff and services due to COVID-related redeployments.
Dr. Horney said these reductions resulted in anywhere between a 25-50% reduction in staff in programs focused on HIV/sexually transmitted diseases, health disparities, maternal-child health, substance abuse and others.
“Everyone working on those things were redeployed to work on COVID,” Dr. Horney said. “But it’s not like all those other things weren’t happening. A lot of those things were actually increasing because of the impact of the pandemic, such as substance abuse deaths, when people were isolated. The impact of the pandemic was multiplied because at the same time people weren’t working on those issues, those issues were becoming more critical.”
Dr. Horney added investigation of other communicable diseases, food-related illnesses and public health surveillance of chronic diseases have also suffered due to the focus on COVID-19.
The issue is compounded because Dr. Horney said the individuals with the most experience in public health, who worked through some of the outbreaks of other communicable diseases (H1N1, Zika, Ebola) are leaving public health due to burnout or retiring.
Burnout due to the pandemic is affecting the overall health of the population. Dr. Horney noted a recent survey which showed 26% decrease in the amount of public health professionals who plan to stay in the field. The country was already short 250,000 public health workers when the pandemic began, Dr. Horney said.
And then there’s the issue of public health funding.
Dr. Horney said one of the biggest question marks for the future fight against other communicable diseases is where the investment will come from. What happened in the past during Zika and Ebola, she said, is there is an influx of money which then goes away once there is no longer a threat, leaving public health unprepared for the next emergency.
“The funding goes away and before the next emergency you don’t have anyone working,” Dr. Horney said. “I think we have to see if that capacity that gets built will still be around or if people will say we don’t have to invest in public health anymore.”
One positive for the future, Dr. Horney said, is applications to graduate public health programs have increased 40% since the start of the pandemic.
“Maybe there is a new generation of public health workers who have become interested in working in public health because of COVID,” she said.
Dr. Horney said additional studies are already underway to determine the pandemic’s full scope of impact on the country’s health systems.
She noted some studies have found children are behind on their vaccines due to missing doctor appointments during the early stages of the pandemic. Another study, by the National Health Service in Great Britain, found people were diagnosed at a later stage of cancer because they put off routine cancer screenings.
“It’s going to take us a long time to understand the indirect health impacts of COVID,” Dr. Horney said. “It’s easy to count cases of COVID but it will take a longer time to measure everything else.”