Supporting Local Health Departments

Whether you live in a major city or the smallest town, your local board of health has statutory responsibility to address infectious diseases – like COVID-19 – by administering vaccines, investigating known and suspected cases, recommending and enforcing quarantine and isolation, reporting to state public health officials, and enforcing regulations around reopening. In this moment of crisis, we are relying on our local public health departments to protect us.

The Problem

The difficulty that we face in Massachusetts is the inconsistency in capacity and quality of local public health departments. This is a problem that MPHA has been raising for years. It is why we helped found the Coalition for Local Public Health several years ago and have vigorously supported passage of the SAPHE Act. The municipal approach to public health in our state – through the 351 cities and towns – means that there is substantial inefficiency and variability in service delivery. In particular, many small towns lack staff and instead rely entirely on volunteer boards of health. As a result they lack the capacity to meet the new demands being placed on them as a result of the current epidemic.

Meeting the Immediate Challenges

To address the COVID-19 pandemic, MPHA is playing a critical coordination role, connecting the state’s COVID-19 Command Center with local public health departments and districts. Together with our partners in the Coalition for Local Public Health, we have developed a network of seven Crisis Affiliates, who are collectively responsible for supporting and directing state resources to local health departments in 227 municipalities. These Crisis Affiliates include regional planning organizations and existing public health umbrella groups. In addition, MPHA is working with our partners to identify critical unmet needs at the local level and advocating for additional support and resources from the State.

Early in the pandemic, we partnered with the public health programs at nine colleges and universities (Northeastern, Boston University, Tufts, Harvard, UMass Lowell, UMass Amherst, Simmons University, Regis College, and the Mass College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences) to recruit students, faculty, and alumni as volunteer contact tracers. Nearly 2,000 volunteers registered through what is now called the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps, and hundreds of volunteers have been matched with dozens of Massachusetts communities.

Accelerating Improvements to the Local Public Health System

Despite the dedication of our state’s local health staff and volunteers, the Commonwealth’s decentralized approach to delivering public health services leads to extreme variability in protections across municipalities — and this puts the entire state at risk. Now is the time to move rapidly to transform our local public health system to adequately protect public health and safety during the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis and to meet future threats to public health.

MPHA is currently working with a coalition of public health, municipal, regional, state and academic leaders to urge the Legislature to pass the Statewide Accelerated Public Health for Every Community Act (SAPHE 2.0). This critical legislation would build on the consensus recommendations of the Special Commission on Local and Regional Health by:

  • Establishing Minimum Public Health Standards for Every Community,
  • Increasing Capacity and Effectiveness by Encouraging Municipalities to Share Services,
  • Creating a Uniform Data Collection and Reporting System, and
  • Providing Sustainable State Funding.

The time has come to create a public health system that provides ALL Massachusetts residents with high-quality public health protections – regardless of their race, income or ZIP Code. To learn more, click here.

Additional resources for local health departments can be found at the following websites:

If you are a local Health Department staff member or volunteer needing assistance, please contact Kristina Kimani at kkimani@mapublichealth.org.

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