May 19, 2024

Advanced Ailment Care

Elevating Health Solutions

Recognizing the role of public health departments

4 min read

Across Virginia this week [April 1-7], local health departments celebrating National Public Health Week will be sharing the myriad of ways public health makes a difference in our everyday lives.

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) encompasses central offices in Richmond and 35 health districts made up of 119 local health departments. We have approximately 3,800 positions agencywide. Our staff have a variety of expertise and job titles — scientists, technicians, nurses, doctors, statisticians, program managers, accountants, engineers, health educators, epidemiologists, procurement officers, office and administrative specialists, attorneys, public information officers, computer programmers, nutritionists, pharmacists, medical facilities inspectors and more.

Epidemiologists track infectious disease outbreaks and advise control measures. Environmental health staff inspect restaurants, wells and septic tanks for safety and sanitation. Vital records staff make sure births and deaths are recorded correctly. Maternal and child health experts promote breastfeeding, child car seat safety, and prenatal and child nutrition. Public health nurses provide care, such as administering vaccines and meeting with tuberculosis patients to ensure they are taking medications. The medical examiner investigates unusual deaths. Radiation technologists make sure X-ray machines are safe and correctly calibrated. Engineers advise and provide technical assistance to public water systems to ensure they are operationally safe and sound. And, hospital and nursing home inspectors investigate complaints about patient care and physical facilities.

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And that’s not everything we do.

During disasters, our public health nurses assist with organizing and staffing special needs shelters, and our emergency coordinators respond in real time to pending threats and crisis situations. Our shellfish and beach monitoring staff routinely test recreational and shellfish growing areas of water to ensure shellfish harvested from those waters are safe to eat and recreational areas are safe for swimming.

There’s more, but I’ll stop there.

You get the idea. Public health, defined by the CDC Foundation, is the “science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities.” Our focus is on making communities safe for everyone. And that’s a broad reach. We work with local, state, and federal government partners, community nonprofit organizations, and other partners to protect and promote the health of all Virginians.

Post COVID-19 pandemic, VDH is busy ensuring we are prepared for the next major public health threat. With American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars, we are strengthening our infrastructure and programs. Our local health departments have received broadband upgrades and new, ultra-low temperature freezers for storing vaccines. They are also receiving new generators in response to future power outages. In the community, we are helping hundreds of low-income homeowners replace or repair broken, unsafe or nonfunctioning wells and septic systems. We are helping community water systems install new main water lines that serve hundreds of residents.

We have formed a partnership to increase the number of dental assistants serving rural communities. We helped establish a crisis call center to support the rollout of the new national 9-8-8 mental health crisis line in 2022.

Preparing the future public health workforce, the second year of the VDH Internship Academy, provides paid experiential learning opportunities for college students and recent college graduates to work at VDH central offices and local health departments. Each of the 30 students or graduates selected for the internship is placed within a work unit of their interest and paired with a mentor. During the 10-week program, interns work a 40-hour week and are immersed in the day-to-day operations of that public health department or office. Interns for 2024 represent 19 colleges/universities and will be placed in 20 local health department and seven central office locations.

This week, VDH social media accounts and our website blog will highlight staff members who embody our mission at work and outside of work. We will also highlight the 2024 National Public Health Week themes, which are civic engagement, healthy neighborhoods, climate change, new tools and innovation, reproductive and sexual health, emergency preparedness and the future of public health.

Please take some time this week to visit our website, the website of your local health districts, and our I AM PUBLIC HEALTH campaign to learn more about what we do, ways you can get involved and how VDH can help you live healthy lives. Thank you for the critical role you play in public health and continuing to ensure the Commonwealth is the best place to live, work, and raise a family.

Karen Shelton, MD, is Virginia state health commissioner. She can be reached at [email protected].

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