Monday, July 22, 2024

The Covid-19 Public Health Emergency may have ended formally, but our nation is not clear of health crises. Many of the challenges spotlighted by the pandemic persist, and we are still grappling with threats such as health equity, mental health and reproductive health, among others. As such, as a nation we need to digest the knowledge we learned during the emergency and implement those lessons to improve our current public health system and to support preparedness.

When the emergency was declared, it was clear our health care system wasn’t adequately prepared. In the months following, hospitals experienced workforce shortages and overcrowding so severe they had to set up pop-ups in parking lots and exhibition centers. Covid tests were hard to come by, and even when they were available, results could take up to a week to process. And while Covid cases and deaths are significantly lower than during the pandemic’s peak thanks to initiatives such as vaccinations and testing, hundreds of people are still dying of Covid complications each week and roughly 6 percent of U.S. adults suffer from long Covid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, many marginalized communities bore a disproportionate brunt of the suffering; Hispanic, American Indians and Alaskan Natives, and Black people were five, four and three times more likely than white people to die from Covid, respectively.

Growing public health challenges beyond Covid plague our communities, leaving us at risk. Disparities are still contributing to health inequity, causing a gap in the nation’s overall health and economic prosperity. In Massachusetts, there is an influx of migrants in need of shelter that is putting strains on health care facilities, and Medicaid redeterminations could leave millions without coverage. These challenges expand nationally as well. The fact is, our health care system is faced with immense pressure and is managing threats beyond a global pandemic.

Everyday illnesses and diseases plague our nation, including obesity, diabetes and hypertension, often affecting marginalized communities at higher rates. We have tools to detect and proactively address these health concerns, yet need to set up protocols to implement them more consistently.

So what should we do? Legislators at all levels of government must prioritize public health preparedness as an integral component of our public policy agenda and fiscal budgets, ensuring there are resources available to tackle public health crises as they arise. The onus is not simply on government officials, though. Public-private partnerships can serve as a method for supporting existing public health systems and alleviating workforce shortages. During the pandemic, CIC Health partnered with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and governmental agencies at state and local levels to deliver Covid test results in less than 24 hours, on average. Through another partnership, CIC Health was able to administer more than 1.2 million vaccines at mass vaccination and community-based sites across the commonwealth.

Private companies and governmental agencies should continue these kinds of collaborations, with private companies standing ready to act quickly and efficiently when public health issues emerge. Public-private partnerships can help with disease forecasting, pinpointing potential public health concerns using tools such as wastewater analysis before they make a significant impact.

Last, but arguably most important, health equity must be a core focus of public health initiatives. Public health officials and health care systems must make conscious efforts to mitigate racial, age, income, disability status and other disparities in the delivery, payment and quality of health care. The pandemic shed a light on how seemingly unrelated factors such as transportation, housing, employment and other social determinants of health can significantly affect people’s ability to access care, and how meeting people in their communities and providing the appropriate resources can make all the difference with hard-to-reach individuals who mistrust the health system. We owe it to our communities to not lose sight of this work and instead make every effort to ensure that those who are traditionally overlooked by the public health system are accounted for.

While the darkest days of the pandemic may feel like a distant memory, it is a question of when, not if, the next public health crisis will emerge. In the meantime, we are faced with additional health challenges that need to be and can be addressed through collaboration and proper planning. By integrating the insights we learned over the course of the Covid emergency into our preparedness efforts, including accounting for potential crises when developing state and federal funding streams, we can tackle public health challenges in a way that is effective and equitable for all.

Rachel Wilson is chief executive of CIC Health, an offshoot of the workplace-sharing company Cambridge Innovation Center formed to provide nationwide Covid-19 services.