The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in over 219 million confirmed cases and 4.55 million deaths to date. The impact the pandemic had on health care workers, and the exhaustion of workers taking on extra shifts and covering for inadequate staffing has been extensively documented. Until recently, the ways in which pandemic response crippled other public health services has received less attention.
A new study published in the journal PLOS One has found that the COVID-19 pandemic had an enormous impact on the provision of other public health services in the United States. During the past 18 months, a large number of public health workers have been redeployed to COVID-related duties, reducing or suspending the deployment of other critical public health services.
According to researchers from the University of Delaware, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. public health system has been understaffed and underfunded. During the peaks of the pandemic, staff redeployments produced significant reductions in several areas, such as programs focused on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (47 percent reduction), maternal and child health (42 percent), chronic disease (37 percent), injury (37 percent), substance abuse (28 percent), and environmental health (26 percent).
“That impacts the overall health of the population,” said study lead author Jennifer Horney, professor and founding director of the University of Delaware’s Epidemiology Program. “Those things didn’t just go away. People still had high blood pressure, they were dying of substance abuse in increasing numbers, but those programs were put on hold.”
Moreover, an increasing number of health workers were on the job for more hours than before the pandemic, often resulting in burnouts, resignations, and early retirements. According to a large-scale survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among 26,174 surveyed public health workers, 53 percent reported mental health problems. The symptoms were more prevalent among those who worked more than 40 hours per week or couldn’t take time off.
Further research is needed to explore these issues in greater depth, and understand how these experiences have changed during 2021. In order to mitigate the complex effects on public health this pandemic had and future health crises might engender, increased funding and enhanced educational opportunities must be urgently provided to train the next generation of frontline health workers.