It seems like a long time ago when people lined the streets cheering and waving signs to thank nurses and doctors as they arrived for their shifts at local hospitals, and firefighters and police officers as they headed to work — all of them facing the mysterious but sometimes deadly coronavirus.

The pandemic forced business and school closures and the bulk of our population either worked from home or no longer had a job to work.

But the health care workers and emergency personnel kept going to work because they had to. And with them, our local public health nurses and health department employees kept the lights on and tried to find a way to keep people safe during the early days of the pandemic.

Once the hope of vaccines came alive, it was often local health directors who coordinated the monumental task of communicating with the public who was eligible, how they could get appointments, and when would they receive these essential shots.

Once quantities of vaccines became available, the state set up large clinics at Gillette Stadium and Fenway and a handful of other sites. But it was the work of local health agents that brought together a nine-community collaborative that ran a regional clinic at Amesbury High School, then the Senior Community Center in Newburyport and elsewhere, opening the door to more people to be vaccinated without having to travel great distances.

With what we hope is the worst of the pandemic behind us, state lawmakers are now looking ahead for ways to use federal pandemic relief money to build a stronger public health system that will be ready for the next health crisis.

The Massachusetts House has tagged $150 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, but the Senate is putting a higher priority on the local public health system, to the tune of $250 million.

State House News Service reported that House and Senate leaders have already agreed to spend $500 million on unemployment insurance relief for businesses and another $500 million on bonus pay for low-income, frontline workers. But the difference in proposed spending for public health shows how differently the two branches are approaching this issue.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, the co-chair of the Committee on Public Health, described investing in public health systems as “among the most perfect ways” to spend ARPA funding. The pandemic strained local systems and exposed inequities for residents depending on where they lived.

“I think coming out of COVID there’s a shared awareness that we have a public health system that doesn’t equitably work for the commonwealth and by investing $250 million the Senate is not accepting that status quo. We are no longer willing to leave communities behind,” she said.

When the state was working to set up the huge regional vaccination sites, many people at the local level argued that city and town health departments had been operating annual flu shot clinics and other public health services for years, so they were already primed to handle organized COVID-19 vaccine clinics.

The Lower Merrimack Valley Collaborative proved how local health officials could rally resources and efficiently vaccinate tens of thousands of residents.

Now, the state Senate is looking to target serious money to bolster local public health departments which can only make them more responsive and better trained to handle the next public health crisis, whatever it is and whenever it comes.

This is the right path to take, putting pandemic recovery funds toward local public health workers and systems.

Trending Video

Recommended for you