Supporting Local Health Departments

Contact tracing and quarantine are critical tools used by local public health departments to help reduce the spread of disease.

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 – through investigating known and suspected cases, recommending and enforcing quarantine and isolation (both voluntary and involuntary), making testing recommendations, and reporting to state public health officials. In this moment of crisis, we are relying on our local public health departments to protect us by coordinating with local hospitals and clinics, emergency response units, and law enforcement.

The Challenge

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.

Our Response

To address this crisis, MPHA is now 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 struggling local health departments in 227 municipalities. These Crisis Affiliates include regional planning organizations and existing public health umbrella groups. In addition, MPHA is also supporting the 15 existing Health Districts (collections of municipalities which had previously come together to share public health responsibilities) through troubleshooting and information sharing. We are pleased that, to date, $9 million in emergency funding has been released by the Baker Administration to support local health departments.

MPHA is also helping to ramp up our state’s capacity for contact tracing – that is, documenting and informing everyone who has had known contact with someone with a positive test for COVID-19.

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 more than 500 volunteers were matched with dozens of Massachusetts communities. Their work will continue through May and then will begin to wind down as the Commonwealth launches its own Community Tracing Collaborative (CTC).

CTC is a statewide initiative to hire and train approximately 1,000 full-time contact tracers, under the leadership of Partners in Health. MPHA is collaborating with the COVID-19 Command Center to ensure that the contact tracing efforts of local health departments are integrated with CTC, and that this important investment in contact tracing also builds local public health capacity for the future.

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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