The (often) hidden work of public health: A reminder from COVID-19

Germaine Louis is the dean of Mason's College of Health and Human Services.

The power of public health is that it is largely invisible when it’s working well—allowing us to go about our daily activities without concern. We have access to safe food and water and fresh air to breathe. We can greet one other with hugs or handshakes, or spend a summer evening outdoors without grave concern for infection. Our ability to overlook these gifts reflects the public health’s infrastructure that underlies each of us. Such invisibility has its cost, as public health can be taken for granted or minimized, especially in the times of budget cuts or competing priorities.

Unlike high tech devices or designer drugs that have direct marketing campaigns aimed at targeted populations, public health measures are often not glitzy and can be easily overlooked as “givens”—except when the public’s health is threatened.  After all, “…wash your hands and cough into your elbow, stay six feet apart…” may not seem like novel guidance despite its efficaciousness.

The irony is, if we follow these measures faithfully and stop the spread of COVID-19, many will be tempted to say these steps were unnecessary or an overreaction. Such irony underscores the invisibility of public health.

As the world combats this pandemic, it’s important to put a spotlight on the public health workers who have long been waging war on emerging infections behind the scenes. This includes many epidemiologists here at Mason who study the spread of diseases and the global response to epidemics. College of Health and Human Services professor Amira Roess studies how strains of the MERS-Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) spread among humans and animals. By understanding disease emergence, Roess’s research—and the work of an army of academics and practitioners—helps inform public health responses and future best practices. Kathryn Jacobsen, another professor at the college, studies the emergence of diseases like SARS, Zika and Ebola and how information and misinformation spread during emerging infectious disease events. Both Roess and Jacobsen have been on the frontlines in educating the public and our very own Mason community on the current pandemic—a role they have played in previous infectious disease outbreaks.

These are just a few examples of the public health workers here at the college. Our ranks are filled with faculty, staff and students who are in the trenches at this moment—screening for COVID-19 cases at local clinics, ensuring that food and medicine flow smoothly to the elderly and advocating for health policies—like paid sick leave—that will flatten the curve of this disease. And behind the scenes are countless others who are fighting the next public health emergency before it happens—be it in the form of a breakdown in global food supplies, a mosquito-borne illness or drinking water contaminated by plastics.

To further expand our arsenal for combatting infectious diseases, the college is developing a PhD in Public Health degree program and, pending SCHEV’s approval of this new degree program, transitioning to become a college of public health. Now, as in the future, our college is working with our many partners to make health visible for all the communities we serve.

As we battle this pandemic, let’s remember there is so much more to health than the absence of disease. Health helps foster individual well-being and is an economic driver at all levels. Or as we may hear… health is wealth. We have the power to stop this pandemic and to help prevent future outbreaks by investing in public health and making health visible. The virus is small in comparison to the size of our community and its many abilities.

For the latest Mason operational updates in response to COVID-19, view the Mason Coronavirus webpage.