Rebuilding Public Health
To cope with pandemic, and eventually, endemic SARS-CoV-2 and to respond to future public health threats requires deploying real-time information systems, a public health implementation workforce, flexible health systems, trust in government and public health institutions, and belief in the value of collective action for public good.7,8
First, the US needs a comprehensive, digital, real-time, integrated data infrastructure for public health. As Omicron has reemphasized, the US is operating with imprecise estimates of disease spread, limited genomic surveillance, projections based on select reporting sites, and data from other countries that may not be generalizable. These shortcomings are threatening lives and societal function.
The US must establish a modern data infrastructure that includes real-time electronic collection of comprehensive information on respiratory viral infections, hospitalizations, deaths, disease-specific outcomes, and immunizations merged with sociodemographic and other relevant variables. The public health data infrastructure should integrate data from local, state, and national public health units, health care systems, public and commercial laboratories, and academic and research institutions. Using modern technology and analytics, it is also essential to merge nontraditional environmental (air, wastewater) surveillance data, including genomic data, with traditional clinical and epidemiological data to track outbreaks and target containment.
Second, the US needs a permanent public health implementation workforce that has the flexibility and surge capacity to manage persistent problems while simultaneously responding to emergencies. Data collection, analysis, and technical support are necessary, but it takes people to respond to crises. This implementation workforce should include a public health agency–based community health worker system and expanded school nurse system.
A system of community public health workers could augment the health care system by testing and vaccinating for SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory infections; ensuring adherence to ongoing treatment for tuberculosis, HIV, diabetes, and other chronic conditions; providing health screening and support to pregnant individuals and new parents and their newborns; and delivering various other public health services to vulnerable or homebound populations.
School nurses need to be empowered to address the large unmet public health needs of children and adolescents. As polio vaccination campaigns showed, school health programs are an efficient and effective way to care for children, including preventing and treating mild asthma exacerbations (often caused by viral respiratory infections), ensuring vaccination as a condition for attendance, and addressing adolescents’ mental and sexual health needs. School clinics must be adequately staffed and funded as an essential component of the nation’s public health infrastructure.
Third, because respiratory infections ebb and flow, institutionalizing telemedicine waivers, licensure to practice and enable billing across state lines, and other measures that allow the flow of medical services to severely affected regions should be a priority.
Fourth, it is essential to rebuild trust in public health institutions and a belief in collective action in service of public health.7 Communities with higher levels of trust and reciprocity, such as Denmark, have experienced lower rates of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.7 Improving public health data systems and delivering a diverse public health workforce that can respond in real time in communities will be important steps toward building that trust more widely.