Our public health workforce in times of pandemic

We have amazing people working in public health and prevention in Australia. Under the very trying circumstances of Coronavirus (COVID-19) they have demonstrated the ability to pivot to areas which are not their usual business, have been willing to work under great stress yet remain appropriately analytic in looking for better ways to control this pandemic.

The depth of our strength in public health has been visible in the number of Australian experts involved in the international efforts. The type of committed people we attract into public health is reflected in the keenness of students in Master of Public Health and equivalent programs to participate in contact tracing and other control activities.

“Any review of the public health workforce capacity must consider that ongoing quieter epidemic, as well as our capacity to surge to meet threats of inevitable future new communicable disease threats.” Professor Andrew Wilson

I particularly want to acknowledge the leadership shown by the Chief Health Officers and other senior public health officers. There have been some extraordinary judgement calls that they have been required to make in the face of great uncertainty and they are doing well. We can’t get everything right under such circumstances and implementing action rapidly is always fraught. The nature of the pandemic threat has bought clinical and public health services closer together, demonstrating the necessary inter-connectiveness which is also key to control to non-communicable diseases but much harder to get focus on in normal times.

While the public health workforce has responded well to this pandemic, it is clear that the workforce has been stretched at times. I welcome the National Cabinet decision to review national capacity and training in public health. It will be important that any review is not entirely focussed on capacity in relation to communicable disease. While it is possible to see an endpoint to COVID-19, we will return to the unnatural normal where the greatest burden of illness is generated by preventable chronic disease.

Any review of the public health workforce capacity must consider that ongoing quieter epidemic, as well as our capacity to surge to meet threats of inevitable future new communicable disease threats.