Essential workers, including public health professionals, have worked countless hours to keep Americans safe and save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. To close out National Public Health Week, Scott Becker, MS, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, discusses the crucial role such workers play.

What have you been seeing in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on the public health laboratory workforce?  
Staffing levels in the public health laboratory workforce at all levels of state, local and tribal government have been diminishing for many years because of funding shortfalls. These already suboptimal staffing levels have been made worse by retirements in an aging workforce. 

Additionally, a lack of competitiveness in pay rates and benefits as compared to the private sector has resulted in low staff retention rates. The long duration of the COVID-19 pandemic has put additional stress on this already over-burdened and weary workforce. Health care worker doing her job

What can we do as individuals and as a country to make sure the needs of essential workers are being met? 
The public health laboratory workforce is flexible and passionate about the work that they do. The pandemic, however, has stretched them beyond their limits and people need to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Public health lab professionals need assurance that help is on the way. The federal government needs to send the clear message that this profession is highly valued and that a sustained investment will be made in training, establishment of pipelines for young people entering the field and for career development for established professionals.

How does racial equity related to the essential workforce, and how we broaden equity in our communities?
To build trust in the communities our members serve and confidence in the importance of public health actions especially in underserved populations, it is essential that the diversity of the public health workforce mirrors the diversity of the communities they serve.

This is especially important for community health staff and those with outreach and education responsibilities, but it is important throughout public health laboratory staff roles. It is also important that public health professionals have training in appropriate and respectful modes of communication that will resonate with the particular community.

What investments do we need to make in the workforce today to protect public health in the future? 
Funding should support training at the both the graduate and post-graduate level to establish pipelines of new employees. Paid fellowship opportunities need to be provided to give early career professionals on-the-job field exposure. Pay rates and benefits need to be competitive with the private sector and provide for career advancement. 

Short-term investments to plug the current gap will be insufficient — long-term, sustained investments are vital.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Learn more about elevating the essential workforce on the NPHW website. Take action by calling on Congress to invest in public health. And say thank you to workers on social media with the #ThankYouPublicHealth hashtag.

Watch and share: NPHW message from Scott Becker


(Photo by Nicholas S. Tenorio, courtesy CDC PHIL)