We Must Protect Our Public Health Agencies from Political Interference

The fact that some states have passed or are considering legislation that will severely undermine the authority of public health agencies is very disturbing and potentially harmful to the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities at large across the entire country. This movement to limit the legal authority of these agencies has the potential to affect their ability to do what they do best: protect the public and save lives. For decades, public health agencies have assumed the responsibility for ensuring our health and safety by preventing the spread of communicable diseases, protecting the public against environmental hazards and responding to health emergencies, to name a few.

Although states vary in their efforts to limit public health authority, Ohio is enacting a law, effective June 21, 2021, granting the legislature authority to block efforts by public health agencies in trying to prevent or control the spread of a contagious or infectious disease. Such actions have the potential to stifle recommendations from experts whose main mission is to ensure public safety and improve the health and well-being of all populations. If there is anything that we can take away from this pandemic it is the tremendous role that our public health agencies continue to play in mitigating further spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Unbeknownst to me, my appreciation for public health actually began during my childhood. I still recall the widespread effort to eradicate polio through mass vaccination in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Once the oral polio vaccine became available, our local public health department collaborated with a local church to help ensure that children like me received the vaccine in an expedited manner. I still remember the sugar-coated pink square cube that I received to protect me against polio. Sadly, my brother was born with polio in 1952 before a vaccine became available in 1955. I shudder to think what the outcomes would have been without our public health agencies at the helm exercising their authority during this public health crisis.

Public health officials do more than just prevent the spread of disease outbreaks and other emergencies; they have been also been instrumental in ensuring that we have access to some of life’s most basic needs, including safe food and fluoridated water. Advances in car safety, chronic disease prevention, mother and baby outcomes and protection from environmental threats such as lead and other toxins are all results, in part, of public health efforts. Efforts to limit the authority of our public health agencies and transfer responsibility to elected officials has the potential to let politics get in the way of their crucial mission.

As a nurse who has worked in the public health sector providing breast and cervical cancer screening services, I am saddened that such proposals are even on the table especially in light of the current pandemic. I know firsthand the role that my local public health agency continues to play in addressing the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color across the Chicagoland area. From mobilizing screening, testing and vaccination efforts to creating culturally relevant health messages, public health agencies were able to move forward by exercising their authority to respond during a public health crisis. Such efforts are critical to saving lives and advancing health equity.

Since the pandemic began, public health leaders and advocates have been calling on the government to increase funding to help build a stronger public health infrastructure and create a well-prepared workforce to address the current and emerging needs of our nation. The Biden-Harris administration has responded by pledging $7 billion to address this urgent need. These investments are long overdue and can only strengthen our response to any public health threats. The momentum to advance public health has never been greater, and efforts to impose limits on public health authority during emergencies or day-to-day operations will only alter this momentum.

All U.S. residents need the assurance that their local and state public health agencies have the necessary authority and power to do their jobs. While there are currently just a handful of states trying to limit the authority of public health agencies, a threat to public health anywhere is a threat to public health everywhere. The time to elevate the conversation about protecting the public’s health is now. Protecting the agencies that do just that seems a great place to start.  

This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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