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The year 2020 has shown public health work is more important than ever, but it’s more than COVID-19 response

Each year, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, we recognize public health professionals who work tirelessly every day to protect the health of all people and all communities for Public Health Thank You Day.

There is no doubt that this year has shown the world that public health is more important than ever. Yes, we have stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic and have been working non-stop each day with contact tracing, messaging development, policy guidance, outbreak investigation, testing and the list can go on! The question is … do people truly understand what we do when we are not in a pandemic?

The public health professionals at the Harford County Health Department are dedicated to reducing infant mortality, facilitating access to care, tracking infectious outbreaks, improving health equity, caring for the environment and so much more. Our employees test individuals for sexually transmitted diseases, they connect individuals to health insurance, prepare for natural disasters, distribute vaccines, and provide education and efficient communication messaging. The restaurant you ate at the other day, our health inspectors made sure that your food was prepared in a safe facility. The individual that needed help accessing mental health services, our workers were on the phone walking them through the process. The mother crying because her child had a toothache, we were there providing them with dental care. We do all of this every day and more … on top of fighting through a pandemic.

I clearly remember the moment I decided I wanted to work in public health. It was 2013 and I was working as a student health technician for our fruit and veggie program at my hometown’s health bureau in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Each day, I would hop in this white pick-up truck decorated in fruits and vegetables and drive around inner-city Allentown to deliver the “foods of the day” to children enrolled in our park program.

On my very first day on the job, the city’s dietitian and I hopped out of the vehicle and we started setting up the treats (they were nectarines and sugar snap peas), when we started to get confusing looks by the children. “What’s that?” A little boy asked me with an exciting look in his eyes. I answered, “That’s a nectarine!” He responded, “I never had one.” I proceeded to give the child his nectarine and sugar snap peas and you could instantly see the happiness on his face once he took his first bite. Shocked that the child never had a nectarine before, I understood the importance of this little program and the education that we provided these individuals each day. This program motivated me to dedicate my life to serving communities and improving population health.

Just as my first job in public health motivated me to help the world seven years ago, my co-workers today at the Harford County Health Department continue to inspire me every day with their hard work, perseverance, and dedication to making Harford County the healthiest community in Maryland.

To everyone who works in public health, thank you for all that you do!

Ronya Nassar is the Health Policy Analyst for the Harford County Health Department.