As more and more parts of the country begin the process of returning to public life, a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has begun.
Past pandemic experience and public health experts tell us the next few months will be marked by measured advances, quick-action retreats, and continued uncertainty. A sustained, effective response will require vigilance, coordination and trusted leadership to prevent a debilitating resurgence marked by an overwhelmed healthcare system and tragic loss of life beyond what we've already endured.
At this critical time in our response, we need expertise in how to reach people who have been exposed, coordinate with a whole host of municipal, state and federal agencies to gather and share data, assist those who require isolation and quarantine, provide clear guidelines for how to operate businesses safely. Public health is the function that connects all of these dots.
Public health complements clinical medicine, offering specific knowledge, tools and approaches to help the nation identify, track and monitor disease outbreaks, prevent infections and injuries, and develop standards and protocols that ensure public safety. In the last 100 years our massive gains in life expectancy came because of successful public health interventions that improve our societal ability to get and stay healthy. Public health professionals gave us the tools to prevent cancer and heart disease through smoking cessation and to reduce fatal car accidents by requiring seat belts. Now they are telling us how to limit the fallout from COVID-19. But are we listening?
Public health expertise is a valuable national resource developed over the decades to protect our lives and the economy during times of prosperity and times of crisis. As we grasp the magnitude of the challenge before us, we have to face the hard truth that we have woefully underinvested in this key public service. And rather than course-correct, we may be quickly moving in the wrong direction.
In testimony last month before a Senate committee, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that states were moving to reopen without having met basic checkpoints and guidelines required to ensure public safety.
The guidance we've been following has and is saving lives. Social distancing has worked, as we see the number of new infections beginning to fall steadily in early hot spots like New York, Detroit, Los Angeles and New Orleans. But that success hides a vulnerability—there are tens of millions of unexposed people across the country who may still catch, spread and succumb to a second wave of the pandemic. This is avoidable. We can rely on public health expertise—guided by accurate, actionable data—to prevent such a wave from occurring and to manage it if it does.
How we reopen matters just as much as when. As we shift our focus from broad mitigation strategies that slow the virus' spread to a more targeted approach that will allow parts of society to gradually reopen and adjust to the next normal, public health guidance will remain critical. Testing, monitoring, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine—all need to be handled expertly and systematically, and the good news is, we have that expertise at our disposal.
We are fortunate to have dedicated public health professionals engaged to get and keep COVID-19 under control. But we have to let them lead. After years of underfunding this essential function, now is the time to lift up and deepen our support for precisely those people who are most necessary to restoring public health and returning the country to the routines of daily life. This is not the time to medicalize public health, it's time to bolster our public health system's resources. Making a sustained commitment to listen, learn and further develop the capacity for our public health institutions will help us emerge from this pandemic stronger than before. If we ignore or sideline them, we will make our own recovery longer, and set ourselves up to emerge with a weaker health system and economy—and still unprepared for the next crisis.
We can and should rely on the public health excellence that our nation has worked so long to build. We need every resource we can get to help us get through and to a better future.