Since my job is in the public health sphere, and since I have training on the biology of infectious diseases, it seemed like I should comment on the coronavirus outbreak. At the same time, I wasn’t sure I had anything to add. I don’t have special access to case counts the rest of you don’t; my recommendations aren’t any different than what you’d find on the CDC website or in reporting like this segment from CBS Sunday Morning. What I do have, I suppose, is a little insight into our public health system which I thought might be worth sharing.
The software company I work for collects and analyzes data on behalf of public health agencies, to assist them in understanding what is happening on a day-to-day basis in their communities. While we do report some data to the CDC, the majority of our users are county health department employees. In most states, those county or other local health department folks are the ones primarily responsible for tracking and responding to health events; in the rest, the state health department has more authority but will still often coordinate with local agencies. Responding to infectious disease outbreaks like the current coronavirus outbreak are just one of their many responsibilities; they are concerned about the nutritional needs, occupational safety, mental well-being and all other aspects of the health of their communities.
And in my experience, public health employees care deeply about the people in those communities. That care might be expressed a bit more abstractly; there is not always an opportunity to show a one-on-one concern for an individual that they know by name. But the compassion is not felt any less strongly. They’ve told me stories about setting up remote command centers in their homes to track situations over weekends, braving difficult road conditions to ensure time-sensitive laboratory testing makes its deadlines, and volunteering to travel overseas for frontline interventions against Ebola outbreaks. I’ve seen them step away from sessions and meals at conferences to stay on top of emerging situations in their home jurisdiction. By and large, these are folks who have chosen to work in public health because they want to be helpful, and so if they see a need they are going to try to meet it.
In one of my first classes as a grad student in public health, the professor brought up the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness as an example of an early public health intervention. Moses was not providing one-on-one care; he was serving the community at once. I periodically come back to that connection between public health and the Bible, and think about how Jesus not only cared for the sick individually but also was lifted up as an intervention for the whole world at once. And so while I appreciate that my colleagues come from a variety of backgrounds and traditions and not all are Christians or religious, I do see a bit of Jesus in their care for communities and for that I am grateful.
During this time when the need for public health is more at the forefront of our conversations and daily life, we can offer a prayer of thanksgiving for those who are intervening to try and keep our communities healthy. And we can also lift them up to be kept healthy themselves in the face of extra stress and scrutiny.