A Closer Look at Public Health Authority
In its pervasive scope, its high rate of asymptomatic spread, and its economic impact, the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in the United States and the world. Yet in other respects, the U.S. public health system was designed, and has evolved, in response to a series of precedents with respect to outbreaks and epidemics of communicable diseases including tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, polio, measles, chicken pox, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and influenza. The practical tools and legal authority of federal, tribal, state, and local public health officials to contain the spread of infectious disease have developed through an ongoing process of balancing and aligning a number of important interests. Public health officials and practitioners who are able to explain and demonstrate the critical role of robust and effective public health legal authority in an emergency will maximize their ability to inform and influence the conversation about adjustments to public health authority during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, navigate any controversy that may arise in the future, and retain the support of their communities.
Public health agencies use their authority for more than preventing epidemics and tracking, investigating and stopping the spread of disease and other health threats (e.g. foodborne illness, HIV/AIDS, measles). These agencies serve many other critical functions, such as preventing injuries; promoting and encouraging healthy behaviors such as diet and exercise; preventing chronic diseases, including cancer and diabetes; planning for and responding to disasters and assisting communities in recovery; protecting against environmental hazards; assuring the quality and accessibility of services, and advancing health equity. Public health agencies inspect restaurants; enforce smoke-free air laws; and test children for lead exposure. They also collect data on how diseases and conditions affect the populations they serve, and implement programs.
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