COVID-19 Stories: The Role of Public Health

“Public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations. These populations can be as small as a local neighborhood, or as big as an entire country or region of the world.” (What is Public Health? – CDC Foundation)

Public Health’s Origins

Public Health as we know it came about in the early 19th century after previous centuries of popular myth that disease was caused by immorality or spiritual ailment. As medical advances were made, so grew comprehension of communicable diseases, their sources, and how to control them. The public also began to embrace the idea that disease and its spread could be controlled, and that it is a civic responsibility to do so.

As the public continued to support government’s role in health, its responsibilities grew to include disease prevention efforts, including sanitation, immunization, hygiene, and regulation. The concept of prevention has continued to broaden from its original scope of disease prevention to that of upstream prevention – working to change the conditions in a community that contribute to poor health – to improve outcomes and quality of life for the community as a whole.

The partnership between the medical community and public health is an important collaboration. Unlike medical professionals whose primary function is to treat illness on an individual basis, public health organizations primarily focus on community prevention—of a disease or its recurrence.  Hospitals and public health departments work closely together to share information when outbreaks occur, slow the spread, and investigate the source of infection through contact tracing. These steps have been featured prominently during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this work and collaboration occur with every communicable disease, including influenza. Testing and immunization often occur as a collaboration between public health officials and medical professionals.

In addition to the vital partnership with the medical community, public health departments also work closely with residents and elected officials to recognize health trends, make policy recommendations, and implement solutions to support the overall health of the public.

Mesa County Public Health

With a staff of over 80 trained experts, Mesa County Public Health (MCPH) works continuously to improve residents’ quality of life and prevent disease outbreaks. They are charged with a wide variety of responsibilities, including testing and immunizations, policy recommendation and implementation, upstream prevention, communication, consumer protection, and education.

Local public health agencies (LPHAs) are formed by local county government, but they are a subdivision of the state. As such, MCPH is an extension of the State of Colorado and is charged with protecting its residents under the state’s authority. Because of this relationship with the state, MCPH also has the ability to create and enforce public health orders under Colorado law. If an order has been issued and a local entity is not following that order, best practices encourage any local public health department to first seek voluntary compliance. However, if the violation continues, a local public health director can bring civil and even criminal charges to ensure the public’s safety.

LPHAs are also tasked with community data collection and analysis, producing important documents such as the Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA). A community assessment is required of health departments every 5 years and nonprofit hospitals every three years. Since 2018, MCPH and the nonprofit hospitals in Mesa County have collaborated to produce a single, comprehensive community report on a three-year cycle. This provides a current snapshot of the health status of Mesa County, brings attention to areas of concern, and fulfills assessment needs for all partners. In this document, state and local data paint a picture that guides the prioritization of efforts in the community. The 2021-2023 CHNA is scheduled for release this year. The 2018-2020 Health Assessment can be reviewed here.

In its consumer protection role, MCPH oversees restaurant and child care licensure and body art and swimming pool protocols/safety guidelines. MCPH also provides the backbone for services such as Nurse Family Partnership and community coalitions like the Community Transformation project, Child Care 8,000, and the Fruita Youth Initiative, to help bridge health gaps in the community and improve outcomes for its residents.

Since 1948, MCPH has provided a wide range of public and environmental health services to Mesa County. Its mission, to maintain and improve health through assessment of community health status, policy development to support effective programs, and assurance of high quality, effective education and service, is the driving force behind its programming and community collaborations.

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