COVID-19 Student Stories
The Blame Game: Navigating the Public Health Response to a Political Problem
Jennifer Mandelbaum, MPH is a PhD student in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior at the University of South Carolina.
Submitted: July 25, 2020
As I’ve watched responsibility for the virus shift away from the federal government, I’ve wondered: Are we gaslighting the public health profession? I see my colleagues at my university and the state health department being blamed for there not being stricter lockdowns or mask-wearing mandates. My coworkers are some of the most selfless people I know, yet some people act as if our motivations are anything less than pure. No one I know gets into public health for the fame or fortune. In fact, despite the high return on investment from public health interventions, many state and local public health professionals qualify for public aid. We don’t blame environmental health scientists for climate change; why are people targeting public health professionals for an inadequate federal response to the pandemic? There seems to be a misunderstanding about how science works. We do what we can with the best evidence available to us, and that sometimes means our recommendations change. Ultimately, it’s not up to us whether those with the political capital to enact change use our knowledge when developing guidelines.
And as we’re blamed for worsening case rates, insults like “arrogant” are slung at us for speaking out against mis/disinformation. This pervasive anti-science rhetoric is only eroding the general public’s trust in public health experts. Whatever privileges come with our education and workplaces should not discredit the science we do. Simply because the word “public” is in our profession, our jobs are treated as though anyone can do them and that the general public knows more about this than we do (see “armchair epidemiology”). It isn’t “self-centered” to assert our roles as public health professionals; it’s our job.
If this sounds personal, it’s because it feels that way to me. It’s difficult for me to ignore the parallels between COVID-19 and the virus which killed my dad a year before this pandemic struck. While I don’t intend to center my experience over those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, I empathize with the frustration that more isn’t being done to prevent this virus’s spread. I have a hard time believing that such apathy would exist if a new form of cancer killed more than 100,000 Americans in three months. What about a novel virus spreading throughout the world sounds anything other than urgent? What will it take for people to stop calling COVID-19 a “hoax” or downplay its severity? We can acknowledge there might be some silver linings to quarantine for the privileged among us (myself included) without normalizing the lives and livelihoods lost from this virus.
To be clear, I don’t blame individuals; doing so ignores the context in which behaviors take place and lets political actors off the hook. And call me naïve, but I think most people mean well. I do think that we, as a field, need to be clearer about how the scientific process works and how it intersects with our political system. It’s important the general public understand that even though the news narrative centers on the “public health response” to the pandemic, this response is ultimately a political one. While I applaud all of the people wearing masks and adhering to physical distancing guidelines, goodwill will not be enough to get us through this. Through it all, my colleagues and I will continue to work every day to research and implement measures that protect the public’s health.
My experience with COVID-19 public hotline duty at the Minnesota Department of Health
Diksha Srishyla, MPH
Submitted: May 30, 2020
During my master’s in public health studies at the University of Minnesota, I started a position as a student worker at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). I was in the Infectious Diseases Epidemiology, Prevention and Control division (IDEPC). In the first week of March, employees in IDEPC, including all the student workers, started getting trained to staff hotlines; to be prepared to answer health and precautions-related questions regarding COVID-19 from the general public with reference to MDH recommendations.
The hotlines were initially set up in small conference rooms able to seat 6 people at a time. I went into my first shift in apprehension of what was to come; some of my usual work involved making phone calls to clinics and laboratories to enquire about testing results and, being an introvert, I did not especially enjoy that. It just so happened that my first day on the hotline shift, March 6th, was also the day when the first case of COVID-19 in Minnesota was detected. Sometime after this was announced in the news, landlines began ringing off their hooks and it was also my turn to answer some calls. People mostly wanted to know where the positively diagnosed person resided and where they had been in the past few days, and we had instructions to not reveal this information to protect personal identity. Many callers were not pleased to hear that.
Over the next few days, the public hotline transitioned from this conference room of 6 people per shift to a classroom with about 20 people per shift. I made sure to read the news, CDC and MDH guidelines everyday to ensure I gave callers the correct information and recommendations in response to their specific queries. Elderly people who lived alone asked if it was ok to meet up with their friends to play cards, parents of college students returning from other states asked about where to put them in quarantine, people who had recently returned from travel abroad asked what symptoms to look out for, conscientious factory workers complained about their administration not taking cleaning and disinfecting guidelines seriously. There are a few calls I shall never forget. A father who had to send his daughter for a custody hearing to another state called to ask if it was alright for her to travel there, and took down my name at the end of the call, probably so that he could cite me for the recommendation I provided in the name of MDH. Such were the calls which reminded me that I wasn’t just representing and relaying MDH recommendations to these people, but that I was also accountable for the information I gave them based on their specific situation so that they could make a sound decision. I was on another call for 45 minutes with another person who reported that she had depression and was very upset that one of her favorite museums had shut down; I could see here the challenge in our roles as hotline responders; to strike a balance between listening, empathizing with the caller and providing her with referrals and resources for her mental health while making sure we weren’t spending so much time with them that we couldn’t attend to other callers’ concerns.
Initially, I would find myself feeling drained at the end of these shifts, as would other employees new to hotline work. Thanks to supportive colleagues and supervisors, my parents and friends who let me vent and a regular workout schedule, I would go back to my next shift with a renewed sense of purpose. Gradually, the feeling of being drained became more of satisfaction and answering these calls became a practiced skill. After a month working on the COVID-19 hotline, I developed not only a useful new skill but also a new appreciation for the work done by hotline employees.