Connecting state and local government leaders
Federal grant funding to help could soon be on the way.
Health officials from major cities around the U.S. this week described how they’re fighting the loss of workers at their agencies and turning to steps like holding recreation days and bringing in food trucks to keep up morale.
But Patricia Simone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director of scientific education and professional development, told the group that federal funding may soon be on the way to help with the workforce issues.
Simone said the CDC is preparing to announce $3 billion in grants to support hiring more public health workers. While the details are being finalized, she said the grants could be given out at once with a requirement that they be spent by grantees over five years.
“I've never been involved in a grant where we give out their money at the beginning and then have people be able to spend it. So that's pretty cool,” she said. In addition, Simone added, those receiving the grants will have flexibility over the types of position they hire for.
City public health directors raised their workforce concerns during an event hosted by the Big Cities Health Coalition in Washington, D.C. this week. During the event, they also recounted how some states have restricted local governments’ power combatting the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We were prevented from doing a lot of things at the local level,” said Philip Huang, Dallas County’s health and human services director.
A 2021 Kaiser Health News investigation found that legislatures in at least 26 states, fueled by the backlash at public health measures like mask mandates, passed laws that permanently weaken government authority to protect public health. In three additional states, an executive order, ballot initiative or state Supreme Court ruling limited long-held public health powers.
Kirsten Johnson, Milwaukee’s health commissioner, worried that vaccine restrictions will hurt the ability to vaccinate children against diseases other than Covid-19. “For me, that's one of my biggest concerns,” she added, noting the rise in politicization around vaccines.
Worker Shortages a Problem
Fermin Leguen, acting chief health officer and chief medical officer at the Southern Nevada Health District, said losing workers is a major issue. “Especially during the pandemic, we are seeing a lot of people leaving the organization for multiple reasons,” he said.
After losing public health nurses to hospitals, the agency has raised their pay to at least the minimum offered by area hospitals. He also said the agency is considering allowing workers to have more flexibility, like working four-day weeks.
In addition, the district is looking at ways to show more appreciation for staff.
“We actually decided to have at least twice a year a one full day of recreation where we offer food trucks and different activities,” Leguen said.
Sara Cody, director of public health in Santa Clara County, California, said she, too, is facing retention issues, including on a team her health agency created to work on racial equity issues.
All the members of that team were hired to do similar work for the county executive, she said, forcing her to have to hire a new team.
“It's really a tremendous recruitment and retention challenge,” she said.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.