At the risk of aging myself, I am a James Garner fan. Two of my favorite movies are “Support Your Local Gunfighter” and “Support Your Local Sheriff”. In both movies, Garner is hired by local leaders to save their community by standing up and facing those they are not willing to confront themselves. Recently, I connected that movie premise to local public health officials and emergency managers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these individuals have been underappreciated and, in some cases, threatened by members of their community who believe sound, science-based, and long-proven measures to prevent the spread of disease are an infringement on their personal rights or even a hoax. To our collective detriment, this has been particularly true of public health officials.
The United States began the pandemic with a major shortage of public health officials. “…[R]oughly 51,000 jobs in state, territorial, and local public health departments were lost following the Great Recession of 2008.” These jobs had not recovered by 2020 and public health preparedness funding also decreased the decade before 2020. The lack of public health officials is even greater now than at the beginning of the pandemic, because of the harassment and lack of support they have received.
According to Lori Freeman of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, as of November 2020, “more than 70 (public health officials) have been fired, resigned or plan to leave their posts since the pandemic began in the U.S. ” Why? She noted that “some of our public health officials have been physically threatened, politically scapegoated. Their roles diminished; their authorities in some cases taken away.” These actions make no sense. Our communities need public health officials and their expertise, now more than ever.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials have led testing, contact tracing, and public awareness to reduce the spread of the virus. Now the coordination and implementation of vaccination efforts has been added to their responsibilities. As professionals, they work to improve the overall health and quality of life in their communities. It is not a political job. At least not until recently. If we want this pandemic to end more quickly, to go back to “normal” or a new normal, we need to actively support them in the same way we are supporting doctors, nurses, and hospitals on the front lines.
How can you support them? Start by paying attention to what they are saying. Look at the guidance they are providing. If you don’t understand why they are asking you to do something, ask them to show you the science that supports their directions. You would give your physician that courtesy. They aren’t putting guidance in place to inconvenience or irritate people. They are asking you to do things to protect your health, your family’s health, and the health of your community. Thank them rather than harass them.
Similarly, your local emergency manager, who you may not even know unless a disaster has recently occurred, deserves your support. Often during the disaster response and recovery process, you hear from local elected officials about what is happening. Behind the scenes though, your county and/or city emergency manager is busy at work. They are responsible for risk mitigation, planning, and preparing for disasters, coordinating emergency response, and directing recovery from disasters. Please note I said coordinating, not commanding. It is one of those “herding cats” jobs with a lot of responsibility to make things happen amongst a coalition of the willing. Good emergency managers make your community safer and more resilient every day.
Even before the pandemic began, local emergency managers were tapped to deal with problems outside their normal areas of responsibility because elected officials have come to view them as a Swiss army knife – great crisis problem solvers. In some states and local communities, emergency managers are leading response to the opioid crisis. In others, they are tackling homelessness. In this pandemic, emergency managers are once again taking on a variety of coordination roles. Setting up mass feeding operations and working with public health officials to establish alternate care sites or plan vaccine distribution planning. Emergency managers fill in the gaps and have continued to do so during COVID-19. Where local Emergency Operations Centers are normally operational only a small fraction of the year, many have been operational since March 2020.
In Louisiana, California, Delaware, and other states hit by tropical weather, wildfire, tornados, or other events over the past year, local emergency managers are coordinating COVID-19 response and recovery while also responding to disasters. Emergency managers love what they do. The work is rewarding. But they are human and can be worn down by the sustained, demanding, and fast-paced tempo.
How can you support them now and in the future? First, find out who your local emergency manager is and thank them. Second, listen to the guidance from public health officials and do your part to help bring this pandemic under control. Finally, when you have time, find your local and state emergency management agency websites and their social media accounts. See what preparedness information they have to offer and follow them for actions you can take during this pandemic or a disaster. You will certainly find information about improving your family’s preparedness. Ensure you know how to get information from them before and after a disaster. Taking responsibility for your preparedness will mean that, during the next disaster, resources can be directed to those who are unable to prepare or need additional assistance.
At the end of “Support Your Local Sheriff,” James Garner hands his badge off to the deputy he trained upon restoring order and safety to the town and settles down to a quieter life. Help your local public health officials and emergency managers to return to their “normal” life of preparing and protecting your community for the next event.
Gary Scronce, Director of Preparedness Programs