With 300 to 400 people dying every day from COVID-19, the United States remains under a federal state of emergency. Last week, Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, spoke with Mark Baldassare, President and Chief leadership of PPIC, on lessons learned from the pandemic and how the United States and California are applying this knowledge to improve public health preparedness and response.
For Becerra, a key lesson is understanding that “none of us is safe until we all are.” Becerra offered a sober critique of America’s healthcare system, where people fall through the cracks. “As advanced and sophisticated as it is, [our health care system] is only as good as the seam that weaves it together – and COVID has proven to us that we have an unequal public health system.
But the pandemic has brought new federal dollars to public health, funding that has led to insurance coverage for a record 300 million Americans. COVID has also forced the country to grapple with issues of equity and access, as providers have learned they need to reach out to communities to protect public health, for example, bringing vaccines to venues. when workers could not reach vaccination sites.
To understand the mental health toll of the pandemic, Becerra visited communities across the country to speak with people who lost loved ones to overdoses, families whose children had spoken of suicide, and households struggling with the high stress levels of the pandemic. “What we need to do is reduce, if not eliminate, mental health stigma,” Becerra said. The administration’s goal is to approach behavioral health with the same attitude given to physical health. The overarching goal Becerra envisions for America is inclusive health care, where access is not based on a person’s zip code. The secretary also wants a change of strategy: “Let’s talk about well-being, about preventing disease rather than remedying or curing it.”
To continue providing responsive health care, California officials are discussing how to maintain key state of emergency provisions, such as staffing and space flexibilities. Dr. Mark Ghaly highlighted the $300 million annual investment Governor Newsom has directed into national and local health, an investment that has enabled the state to innovate amid the pandemic.
“COVID has moved in the same way as the weather; he did not obey county lines,” Ghaly said. These patterns of movement have forced the state to adapt, to “start thinking more regionally about our strengths, our need to plan and work together, and how our formal public health systems are separated from the system of health care delivery, of the emergency response system.” Throughout the pandemic, working at the grassroots level has connected the three systems.
Californians are now battling RSV and flu infections even as COVID cases rise and fall – today, staying healthy means staying up to date with vaccinations. Ghaly praised California’s bivalent recall rate and stressed the importance of getting treatment when people get sick. “California people are getting the message and seeing the real threat,” Ghaly said, “Now is not the time to let our guard down.”
PPIC’s Future of California Speaker Series invites thought leaders and changemakers with diverse perspectives to participate critically, constructively, and collaboratively in public conversations. The goal is to give Californians a better understanding of how our leaders are addressing the challenges facing our state.
PPIC is a non-partisan, non-profit organization. PPIC does not take or support any position on any election action or local, state or federal legislation, nor does it support, endorse or oppose any political party or candidate for public office. All opinions expressed by event attendees are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Public Policy Institute of California.
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