Core Functions of Public Health in the Age of Coronavirus


The coronavirus pandemic has put the core functions of public health, especially epidemiology, on full display.

The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the urgent need for more public health professionals.

Beyond that, the global response to COVID-19’s spread has introduced the core functions of public health to people around the world, putting the different ways we communicate about health on full display.

Public health “promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.” While health care workers treat sick and injured patients, those in public health careers look at health problems from the level of populations—neighborhoods, regions, demographic groups, professions—and focus on preventing disease and promoting wellness.

So far, the epidemiologists, global health specialists, and health policymakers are the most visible in the response to COVID-19. But many others in our field do tireless work behind the scenes.

Questions of when to close schools and offices and how to protect the essential workers remaining on the job—grocery workers, truckers and transportation workers, health care workers, etc.—are the questions occupational health specialists deal with every day.

Community health specialists grapple with how to deliver food and essential services to the elderly and others who can’t leave home. They also think about how to protect the homeless, who are now more vulnerable than ever.

Social and behavioral scientists are figuring out how to decrease loneliness while we’re practicing social distancing—and how to get us to social distance in the first place.

Creating New Approaches to Public Health

We’ve seen public health professionals doing what they do best to try to prevent the spread of the virus. However, we’ve also seen that we need better approaches to convince people to act based on public health information.

I’m thinking of the burning match graphic that demonstrates why social distancing works. That animation, which has been making its way around my social media feed and that of many others, was created by a Spanish graphic designer.


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Another great example: The “flatten the curve” image that has become the defining data visualization of the epidemic. The curve has served as a mental model for me and so many others about when and why to avoid going out.

Did you know it was originally from a CDC paper titled “Interim pre-pandemic planning guidance: community strategy for pandemic influenza mitigation in the United States: early, targeted, layered use of nonpharmaceutical interventions”? That it was resurrected by Rosamund Pearce, a data visualization journalist at The Economist? That it was refined by a population health specialist named Drew Harris, and remixed and reinvented by everyone from microbiologists to cartoonists—all in the last few weeks?

That kind of collaboration across disciplines is the future of public health. We must be able to adapt and remix techniques from other fields and broaden our communication techniques.

We need people in public health from diverse backgrounds who can approach problems with fresh perspectives. And, as we say in Elmhurst University’s mission, we need people who are ready to make meaningful and ethical contributions to a diverse, global society.

Working Toward Healthier Populations

That’s why we at Elmhurst University are building a public health program that helps our students become agile problem-solvers. Our goal is to help them develop a versatile skill set in addition to having expertise in the things public health already does well—population health, epidemiology, biostatistics, understanding health disparities and advocating for health equity.

We emphasize using big data to understand problems and target solutions. We practice techniques like storytelling in our communication with the public. And we adopt innovative tools like human-centered design to help us address the world’s most persistent public health challenges.

While COVID-19 is everyone’s focus now, all the issues in public health that existed before will continue to exist even after this crisis.

We still will need to address ways to promote physical activity and healthy communities, prevent gun violence and motor vehicle trauma, encourage healthy aging, and plan for the health effects of climate change.

Even when this crisis passes, we will need talented, skilled, and creative problem-solvers to help us rebuild a healthy society and prepare for the next challenge. Are you ready for a public health career?

Study Public Health at Elmhurst University

At Elmhurst, you will learn the fundamentals of public health and use them to advocate for healthy people and communities. Request more information today!

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About the Author

Molly Tran is the director of the public health program at Elmhurst University. She studies the occupational health of workers in the gig economy. You can hear her talk about the health and safety of gig economy workers during the coronavirus epidemic here or read more here.

Posted April 3, 2020

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