WA Department of Health Panel — Reimagining public health: Current and future challenges

I had the pleasure of participanting as a panelist on Apr 9, 2021 to discuss we maybe going to COVID in the medium to long term in Washington state. We also talked about other ongoing long term challenges: chronic diseases and climate change. I appreciated the perspectives of fellow panelists: WA Secretary of Health Umair Shah, Senior Director of Data and Analytics at Kaiser Permantente WA Anne Schaefer, Chair of the WA State Commision on Hispanic Affairs Bernal Baca, and UW School of Public Health Research Consultant on Environmental Justice and community-engaged research Esther Min.

My main points for the panel and audience to consider were, with COVID the importance of vaccination and likely soon to become available vaccines for children. Families should be thinking about child vaccines now.

I mentioned that with COVID over the medium to long term, we need to think beyond our local communities, what our local cases and vaccination levels are, and whether we’re moving forward or backward in our phased reopening of the economy, to a more national and global perspective. We are members of a larger global community. With infection, new variants, and low vaccination in other countries, there will be risk of reintroduction of transmission into WA. Therefore, surveillance, contact tracing, case isolation, etc against imported resurgent transmissions will continue to play an important role even as cases in WA seemingly decline.

I spoke a bit about climate change, and mentioned the shift we’re seeing WA from simply preparedness and adaptation activities to exciting opportunities for mitigating climate change through carbon reduction policies and initiatives.

I also spoke about how by mitigating the long term impacts of carbon emissions, we also benefit in the short-term by reducing air pollution to improve the health of our communities.

I mentioned some of the overlaping risks that are creating new challenges, using the example of climate change and schools dealing with wildfire smoke, while at the same time having to deal with COVID — and these two risks creating potentially conflicts for managing indoor air quality.

With respect to chronic disease, I simply mentioned that I felt we really needed to work on structures and systems across the lifecourse. Chronic disease isn’t so much of a disease of middle or older age, but is a disease that develop over time. The example I gave was one of obesity developed in adolescence, which becomes obesity in young adulthood, and thus persists into older adulthood. Can we really address the upstream social and built environmental factors that affect children’s health — factors that may be predictive of chronic disease later in their lives.

I also learned a lot from the shared perspectives of the other panelists, including the importance of data, the need for large scale public health systems change and funding, the ongoing need to view health issues through an equity lens, and to work with community leaders and organizations, especially in times of emerging public health crises.