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The pandemic isn't over yet, but thousands of public health workers lost their jobs

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The American public health system has never faced anything quite like the coronavirus pandemic. The system was pushed to its limits. So were the workers who staff it. And in recent months, thousands of those workers who were hired to fill gaps during the worst of the pandemic have lost their jobs.

That's according to correspondent Lauren Weber's investigation for Kaiser Health News. She's been talking with some of those public health workers, and she's here to share what she has learned. Hey there, Lauren.

LAUREN WEBER: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: All right. So the pandemic today, I think it's fair to say, it feels in a different phase than we felt a year ago, certainly than two years ago. But it's not over. So why are these public health jobs now disappearing?

WEBER: So, look; for decades, public health in this country has been underfunded, which means it's been understaffed. And so when COVID hit, the CDC Foundation, which is a nonprofit that looks to execute the CDC's aims, hired 4,000 public health workers to kind of fill in those gaps at state and local health departments across the country. But the bottom line is the money began to run out this summer and now fall. And the majority of those folks no longer have jobs, leaving the work that they were doing, you know, whether that be counting COVID cases as epidemiologists or putting out COVID messaging or filling in the gaps of the public health system that they came upon.

KELLY: Well, I'm compelled to point out that it's not just COVID. We've got flu season upon us and RSV, and monkeypox hasn't disappeared either. Where exactly are the staffing gaps that you're tracking now?

WEBER: I think we've got to take a step back and look at the public health system as a whole. You know, some new research has come out in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice that says that for the current public health workforce, there's an 80,000-worker gap between what we have now and what we need to give just basic public health services - 80,000. So these 4,000 that we're talking about don't even - even if they had all remained in their jobs, would not have scratched the surface of that 80,000 number. And so these folks that are needed, they're needed to do work on, you know, pandemic disparities, on rural inequities, on other public health projects that CDC Foundation workers said they had to set down because their money ran out.

You know, Chicago even said to me that without more funding and without more clarity on their workforce, they may have to cut their wastewater tracking. They may have to cut their budget for their IT staff. I mean, that's kind of the reality when you're missing so many jobs that just aren't there right now.

KELLY: I want to talk about some of the individual people affected by this. As you speak with public health workers who are now out of a job or losing their job, what are they telling you?

WEBER: They're incredibly demoralized. I mean, they've worked throughout the pandemic long hours. You know, they've often been villainized or used as pandemic punching bags for the politicization of COVID. You know, a lot of them are burned out. They've seen their coworkers leave. They've taken on more responsibility. And they're looking for the exit door.

You know, I spoke with Katie Schenk, who's a senior epidemiologist, who is one of the folks that the CDC Foundation employed. She worked for both D.C. and Illinois before her contracts ran out this summer.

KATIE SCHENK: It's been very difficult to be on the front lines. I've had experiences of trauma. Now I'm becoming very disillusioned because I'm working in a system that I don't feel values my skills and a system in which it's very, very difficult for me to find rewarding employment.

KELLY: And Lauren, I want to jump in. As I listen to somebody like that, Katie Schenk, who's not only in a bad place now but has been through this cycle before, what keeps her around?

WEBER: Well, I think the bottom line is a lot of them aren't going to stick around. They feel like they can find better jobs in the private sector. They're burned out. And they're ready to leave. They feel like they're underpaid.

KELLY: I mean, it sounds like what you're - I don't know if boom/bust is the right term, but, like, there is this cycle - boom/bust. And every few years, it starts over again for people in this line of work.

WEBER: You're exactly right. I mean, every couple years, I mean, we obviously have major public health crises. Look at Ebola. Look at Zika. You see hundreds of millions, sometimes billions of dollars poured into them to fix, you know, these long-standing problems. But then the money goes away. And then we're left without enough staff to handle a pandemic or an epidemic or whatever public health challenge it may be.

KELLY: Lauren Weber, thank you.

WEBER: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: She is Midwest correspondent for Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.