Fraser and Smith: Public health professionals fight for everyone’s life – they deserve a break, too

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The COVID-19 pandemic is taking its toll. Nearly everyone in America has lost someone or something – a loved one, a job, a business, or hope for the future. A few have blamed weary public health professionals for their losses as they look for someone to hold accountable for their pain and suffering.

On Monday, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said she’s received numerous physical threats over the past several months. Her story is just one example of harassment facing public health officials across the country during the pandemic.

As public health leaders who have dedicated our lives to keeping communities safe from infectious disease and preventable death, we’re saddened and frustrated for our colleagues who are trying to do their best to keep the public healthy. Public health professionals at every level want one thing for their communities: life free from this novel coronavirus.

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While they battle alongside doctors, nurses, first responders, scientists and others to accomplish this goal, there are a few things you can do to help support your public health official during this extraordinary time.

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First, wear a mask. We get it, some people do not like wearing masks. They’re uncomfortable and they make conversations difficult. But they work. It’s a simple concept. My mask protects you. Your mask protects me. There are many creative and fashionable options available online if that’s what it takes to get you to wear one.

Next, monitor updates to re-opening plans in your area. Public health officials want this pandemic to end as much as you do. But rushing things can make even more people sick. Many people are working very hard to find safe ways for you to go back to work, school and other activities. But the return to “normal” must be done carefully lest we risk losing even more friends and neighbors to COVID-19 and its complications.

Also, if your health department calls, answer your phone. The caller is likely trying to share information that could save your life, or the life of a loved one. Personal visits and certified letters are other options health departments have for reaching you, but they waste precious resources and time. How long are you willing to wait before knowing that someone around you just tested positive for COVID-19? Wouldn’t you want to be told as soon as possible if you’ve been exposed? Answer the call.

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Finally, take the time to appreciate your public health agency and its staff. Like you, they’re worried about the mounting loss of lives and livelihoods. Rather than permit an angry few to degrade or demoralize them, reach out with an encouraging email, letter or card expressing appreciation for their vigilance on your behalf. It means a lot when a member of the community takes the time to appreciate a public servant.

Public health professionals are working non-stop to defeat the COVID-19 virus. In fact, they were standing up for us long before the first cases of the coronavirus were identified. Now it’s our turn to support them for their dedication, their bravery and their tireless efforts to keep us alive, whether those who’ve leveled harsh criticisms like it or not.

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Nathaniel Smith, MD, MPH, is director and state health officer of the Arkansas Department of Health and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.