By Bruce Tufts
I was exercising in my basement, watching CNN, on Sept. 11, 2001, as two hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center. This initiated my learning journey about public health. I was then working in California as the emergency management coordinator for the county’s largest medical center.
In the subsequent weeks, the markedly underfunded and neglected county public health department was called upon to ramp up quickly. One challenge after another was given to this small group of dedicated professionals. Monies flowed in from the feds over the following five years, so every health care agency became more able to meet these and other challenges (wildfire smoke, the annual flu assault, etc.).
I left for Africa in 2006, and my public health education was continued in terms of clean water, sanitation (or lack thereof), poverty, etc. Moving to Eugene in 2009, I worked part time as an RN at White Bird Medical Clinic for the next 11 years. There I encountered occasional challenges with mental health access, etc.; but I was confident that the work we had done after 9/11 had rendered our nation’s public health infrastructure in a much better place after decades of neglect.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 in March of 2020, I began volunteering at the Lane County Public Health Department, first on the phone lines and contact tracing, and later I joined hundreds of volunteers in the vaccination efforts. I was appointed to the Public Health Advisory Committee and this reintroduced me to public health as an agency.
I was dismayed to discover that the monies advanced in the past crises had dwindled and again we were unprepared and required a rapid response/buildup. This was accomplished by diverting staff from other public health efforts as prior funding provided no “free board” for the “waves” of such emergencies. Supplies stockpiled by the federal government after the last crises were neglected and discovered to be not available/functional.
Again we were trying to “MacGyver” ventilators, PPE, etc. These experiences of feast/famine are not a rational template to provide the everyday and exceptional, essential tasks public health is required to address.
Oregon has joined other states in a modernization effort to ensure our communities have a forward-looking and adequately funded public health sector. This effort is well underway, yet incomplete. During the current legislative session, public health modernization is again up for funding.
I’m sure that we all recognize the vital work of public health (wildfire smoke, addiction, infectious diseases, extreme weather, rural health, EMS, etc.) both within the agency and in concert with our community partners. Public health also addresses the numerous, unrecognized services that protect our families, our neighbors, our county. I urge our community to contact their elected representatives to support full funding of this essential service. Boom and bust is not any way to fund an essential community resource.
Bruce Tufts, RN is the chair of the Lane County Public Health Advisory Committee.