Bridging the Gap: Public Health Professionals Build Critical Connections to Fight COVID-19


With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health organizations are on the front lines in the fight to save lives. But the rapid spread of the virus has stretched resources thin as public health organizations and healthcare providers combat the pandemic on multiple fronts.


To help connect public health organizations with the support they need, the CDC Foundation brought in Monica Valdes Lupi. As the former executive director of Boston’s Public Health Commission, Valdes Lupi has extensive experience navigating big city public health challenges and an insider’s understanding of the unique dangers facing the most vulnerable.

“I was brought on board on a short-term basis to make connections with our state and local health departments to better understand the challenges and gaps they are experiencing in their response to the pandemic,” Valdes Lupi said.

As a part of this work, the CDC Foundation has developed a network of individuals who are working throughout the United States to connect with public health departments.

“Our senior advisors are uniquely positioned to partner with our health departments because of their experience leading at local, state and federal levels,” said Valdes Lupi. “They bring that experience and instant credibility because they can immediately relate to some of the challenges that our jurisdictions are experiencing.”


Finding Equipment and Staff in a World Stretched Thin

Key among those challenges for many public health organizations was finding the equipment needed to do their work safely and efficiently. Through donations, the CDC Foundation has provided organizations throughout the United States with supplies such as medical equipment, masks, hand sanitizer and care kits for first responders.

In the Massachusetts Department of Health, for example, the CDC Foundation provided a state-of-the art, high-throughput COVID-19 testing platform that helped them increase lab testing capacity.

“This platform more than quadruples the polymerase chain reaction testing capacity and supports expanded epidemiologic testing to respond to hotspots of COVID-19 infection identified by the state and local health departments,” said Kevin Cranston, MDiv, assistant commissioner and director, Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “We are grateful to the CDC Foundation and its donor for this critical and well-timed new capacity to support the testing needs of the Commonwealth.”

As the full weight of the pandemic struck home, the CDC Foundation also used grants to allow public health organizations to bolster staff, a critical need as human resources in many departments have been stretched thin.

“The Foundation is playing a big role by hiring more than 900 staff working with health departments to help address the pandemic, including hiring contact tracers, epidemiologists and many other types of staff,” Valdes Lupi said. “That is one of the most immediate challenges the public health departments have faced.”

As is often the case with any public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed inequities in the national health care system. Racial and ethnic minorities, homeless populations, migrants and the poor are particularly vulnerable. Here again, Valdes Lupi says, the Foundation has stepped in to help.

“The Foundation has been supporting our health departments as they address the acute and critical needs of our vulnerable populations like immigrants, black and Latinx populations,” Valdes Lupi said. “They are making sure people get access to testing and treatment and all of the wraparound support they might need to safely quarantine at home.”

I think this pandemic is definitely an opportunity to expand peoples’ understanding of what public health is all about and why it matters to each and every one of us.


What Lies Ahead

As the COVID-19 response continues to unfold, Valdes Lupi says she is troubled by a national anti-public health messaging undercurrent she sees developing, and what implications it might have on widespread coverage if and when a vaccine is finally developed. That said, the pandemic has thrust the role of public health workers into the limelight, providing an opportunity to showcase the unique role they play in keeping us all safe.

“Typically you don’t see the epidemiologist or the public health nurse as the face of public health,” Valdes Lupi said, “So I think this pandemic is definitely an opportunity to expand peoples’ understanding of what public health is all about and why it matters to each and every one of us.”

As Valdes Lupi is rolling off the response, the CDC Foundation hired Lisa Waddell, MD, MPH, as chief medical officer to guide efforts on the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 response related to the cross-cutting activities of the Foundation’s senior advisors working with state, local, tribal and territorial health departments.

Looking back on her own experience as the head of Boston’s Public Health Commission, Valdes Lupi says she has been happy in her role as an advisor for the CDC Foundation, working with public health agencies to fill critical gaps in their systems. She appreciates the speed and flexibility with which the Foundation addresses needs as they arise.

“To be able to provide help where it is needed, without a lot of bureaucracy, is really the beauty of the Foundation,” Valdes Lupi said.

Part of the funding for efforts described in this article was supported by Grant or Cooperative Agreement number NU38OT000288, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of CDC or the Department of Health and Human Services.