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National Public Health Week Spotlight Series: Erin Laird, Director of Emerging Infections

In recognition of National Public Health Week, Research!America is spotlighting public health professionals who work at the national and local levels to address the most pressing issues that affect communities nationwide.

Below, Erin Laird, MPH, Director of Emerging Infections, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) discusses managing community partnerships and the need to increase public health visibility, and shares lessons learned from COVID-19 response efforts.

In your current role at ASTHO, what sort of factors inform your work?

The biggest factor would be responsiveness — what are the needs of the field and of state health agency leadership? We are here to support them so that is number one top of mind for me.

Of course, there’s always a balance between funder needs and member needs. On the member side, when surveys are an option, [we] love having that level of data. Our policy committees, like our Infectious Disease Policy Committee, also inform the work. Much of my current work is coalition and council driven; I support the Making Dialysis Safer Coalition and the Council for Outbreak Response: Healthcare-Associated Infections and Antimicrobial-Resistant Pathogens (CORHA).

On the other side of things, we have the funder aspect. We have a good relationship with our CDC colleagues. We have our finger on the pulse in terms of what state health agency leadership is experiencing and their needs. When the CDC is considering a certain approach, we can provide that “ground truth” perspective to ensure CDC is aware of and considering the impact that decisions may have on state and territorial health officials.

In what ways do you collaborate/engage with partners, committees, workgroups, or other agencies?

So much of public health is collaboration. At the local health department in Bradenton, FL, where I worked as a CDC Public Health Associate, [we] engaged with the community members to make sure that what we were proposing or what we identified as the problem, actually aligned with their community needs. We would then collaborate with community partners because at that local level, resources are often so tight, that it’s critical to leverage each other’s strengths. In terms of relationship management, it’s also important to make sure you’re not stepping on toes and be sure to involve those who may have been historically working in this space, and not take over.

I think it’s similar at the association level, but the audiences of those groups change a little bit. We still engage with our community of members to ensure that we’re always being responsive to their needs. We’re always working with other national partners, including National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, the Association of Public Health Laboratories, as well as federal agencies to make sure that we’re not duplicating efforts and that if there are opportunities to leverage each other’s strengths and maximize resources, that we’re taking advantage of those. We’re all working towards many of the same common goals.

There were many lessons that came out of the emergence of COVID-19. In your opinion, what was the biggest lesson learned about preparing for and responding to emerging infections?

I hope that Congress understands that we can’t afford to starve the public health system of funding for years, and then expect it to be ready for an emergency. When an emergency arises, you can’t just flush it with cash and hope that that fixes the problem. It’s so critical that public health receive sufficient and consistent funding to build and maintain some of these systems that we saw were old and struggling.

In terms of public health, an important lesson that I hope that we take forward would be the importance of communications. There was a lot of misinformation and mistrust. I think phrases that we are used to in public health, like “surveillance” and “contact tracing,” were misunderstood by the public and sometimes came off as a little scary. Those lessons related to communications will be essential to maintain trust during the next crisis.

What changes in public health do you hope to see in the future?

I would hope to see us rebuild and maintain trust, which eroded during the pandemic. And not just trust, but an appreciation for public health. A big challenge that we face in public health is that when we do our jobs, it means we are preventing outbreaks and other problems, but you can’t really see prevention. You don’t notice that people aren’t getting tuberculosis. It’s a harder thing to notice and appreciate how much public health is doing for us at any given time. It’s on us, public health professionals, to find creative ways to tell those stories and share those successes to foster that appreciation.

How is ASTHO celebrating National Public Health Week this year?

We are sharing stories to highlight some important public health issues. We’ll be covering things like firearm violence prevention, preparedness and disability integration, mental health, and health disparities. There’s a number of other topics we’ll be covering on our blogs as well as our daily newscast. National Public Health Week is one great example of a time that we, as a community of public health, can share some of these stories and successes.

Bio: Erin Laird is the Director of Emerging Infections for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). In this role, Erin leads ASTHO’s portfolio on healthcare-associated infections (HAI) and antimicrobial resistance (AR). Prior to joining ASTHO, Erin was a Senior Program Analyst with the National Association of County and City Health Officials, where she worked for six years on HAIs, AR, and infection prevention and control. Ms. Laird began her career as a Public Health Associate for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stationed in Bradenton, FL. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, College Park and a master’s in public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.