An adequate public health workforce is necessary for public health emergencies

By Andie Burjek

Mar. 18, 2020

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Health care workers have a vital role in caring for patients with coronavirus. But they’re also at risk themselves.

They’re in a tough situation because an outbreak among health care professionals and those who work at health care facilities not only impacts an organization’s finances, but it can also cascade into a larger health care crisis, according to a guide prepared by law firm Seyfarth, “Coronavirus Preparation for Health Care Facilities and Workers.” While providers have obligations to their patients, they also have responsibilities to their employees to keep them safe. 

These issues are true for both private and public health professionals, but the public workforce in particular has unique challenges. It has been chronically underfunded, especially since the Great Recession of 2008, said Rivka Liss-Levinson, director of research at the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. 

While health care workers are doing the best they can to control and contain the coronavirus outbreak, there’s a limit to what people can do with limited funding, she said. Meanwhile, these employees are highly educated and have jobs that require specialized skills and credentialing, so health care systems facing a shortage due to an outbreak have trouble replacing them. 

“To successfully tackle today’s greatest public health challenges, a workforce of sufficient size and with the appropriate skill sets is needed. This requires allocating adequate funding,” she wrote in her blog, “We Shouldn’t Wait for a Crisis like Coronavirus to Fund Public Health.” 

Turnover may be a concern for their employers. The public sector workforce is mostly mission-driven, and they know they won’t be paid as much as they would in the private sector. They want to make a difference in their community, Liss-Levinson said. Still, they also want to be compensated fairly.  

She cited a study from de Beaumont Foundation and Association of State and Territorial Health Officials which found that 47 percent of this workforce plan to leave their jobs in the next five years. While some of this (22 percent) is due to retirement, 25 percent of employees said they wanted to leave for new positions.  

Meanwhile, available public health care plays a big role in rural areas, which may face unique challenges in that they have fewer resources and harder-to-access care compared to urban areas. It’s important for people to access care in these communities, whether it’s for a pandemic or something more common. 

“We have a tendency to really put a spotlight on public health when there are emergencies like this but we need to be adequately finding public health at all times. When you are underfunded, you are then not able to deal with an emergency,” Liss-Levinsom said. “We need to be aware of the role the public health workforce plays every day in protecting us, not just when there’s something like coronavirus.”


Andie Burjek is an associate editor at

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