Maine’s aging workforce, and the challenges of recruiting and retaining new workers, are well-documented and span virtually every sector of our economy. A recent Press Herald article about the shortage of public health nurses in Maine painted a bleak picture – both of the previous administration’s lack of commitment to public health, and of our state’s readiness for the public health threats of today and the future.

Staff Writer Randy Billings correctly reported that Maine is struggling to fill open public health nurse positions, despite active promotion. He also correctly noted that even if fully staffed at minimum levels established by the Maine Legislature, our public health nurse count would fall far short of the recommended ratio of 1 public health nurse for every 5,000 residents.

In my position at the Maine Public Health Association, I’ve written several op-eds expressing concern about the state of our public health system. I’ve testified many times in front of the Legislature about the need for more public health funding. There is no question that our public health system is underfunded and underbuilt.

But the story was incomplete in other ways. Namely, that we are fortunate to have public health leaders and workers who are competent, forward-thinking, transparent and communicative. All of these are essential traits for an effective and comprehensive emergency response, such as the one underway for COVID-19.

I know I speak for many public health professionals in saying that I have complete faith and trust in our state government’s leadership, response strategies and specific actions to protect the public’s health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and its partners have been planning for COVID-19 since last year, well before the virus arrived in Maine. And while Maine’s public health system is operating at far less capacity than it was 10 years ago, much important work is being accomplished as COVID-19 cases are investigated, personal protective equipment is procured, testing procedures are improved and and the public is updated regularly about the virus and how to prevent its spread.

You can rest assured that Maine has a fully committed, educated and experienced army of public health professionals, health care workers, pharmacists, store clerks and volunteers working around the clock to ensure our health, safety and well-being during this unusual and stressful time.

Other important work is being done to make sure we have a strong, localized, efficient and effective public health system. Earlier this year, L.D. 227 was passed unanimously and signed by Gov. Mills. It calls for the development of a blueprint for rebuilding and modernizing Maine’s public health infrastructure. The Maine Public Health Association is working closely with the Maine CDC on a collaborative assessment of infrastructure and capacity; an analysis of community-level gaps and opportunities, and recommendations for statutory changes that will be reported back to the Legislature in January.

We all have a role to play in protecting public health, so please do your part. If you feel unwell, stay home (except to get medical care) and stay away from others. If you and everyone in your home feels well, then it is OK to check on others and help with groceries or other essential errands. In all cases, stay 6 feet away from those around you and please keep washing your hands. The Maine Public Health Association website and Facebook page provide information about other ways you can help, whether it be by donating your time, money or resources. As Mainers, we may not like asking for help, but we do want to help each other. We can all pitch in on this one.

On behalf of the state’s largest association for public health professionals, please join me in thanking the staff and volunteers at Maine CDC, Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Maine Emergency Management Agency and all the other state and local agencies, hospitals, health centers, businesses and nonprofit organizations that are working even harder than usual to protect the health of all of us.

 


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