Public Health, Partnerships, and Prevention During the Pandemic

Public health practitioners across Wisconsin can now estimate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in their communities. By looking at color-coded maps based on health care data, they can tell how many people in a single zip code are at risk for severe complications from the novel coronavirus. Percentage of adults aged 18-85 in Milwaukee County with two or more risk factors for severe complications of COVID-19 by zip code

Several University of Wisconsin–Madison research groups collaborated to develop this new resource. One connected the researchers with public health staff statewide: the Wisconsin Public Health Research Network (WPHRN), housed at the UW–Madison School of Nursing. 

“We were asked by the Neighborhood Health Partnerships project to help discern whether public health practitioners would find zip code-level data on risk factors for severe COVID-19 disease helpful in their planning and decision-making,” says Susan Zahner, DrPH, RN, FAAN, Co-Chair of WPHRN and Associate Dean at the School of Nursing. 

“We were able to quickly tap some of our members to provide feedback on the concept and draft reports,” says Zahner. “We were also able to disseminate this important new resource to our members, and to other public health professionals through our relationships with the Wisconsin Public Health Association and state health department officials.”  

The COVID-19 risk map is one example of how WPHRN carries out its mission of “linking and supporting.” WPHRN works with more than 270 members to encourage researchers to investigate priority questions for public health practitioners, and to share research findings with practitioners in the field. 

Public health measures are essential to the COVID-19 response, including disease testing, contact tracing, and encouraging proper hygiene measures such as hand washing. 

Susan Zahner“Isolation becomes very important to keep sick people away from well people to prevent the spread of the virus. When people are exposed to someone who has it but aren’t sick themselves, then quarantine becomes important to keep that exposed person from potentially spreading the virus to others,” says Zahner. “Surveillance and monitoring communities for disease spread are other basic tools of public health.” 

COVID-19 has proven especially serious for older adults and long-term care communities. By late April, more than 10,000 residents and staff in long-term care communities had died from COVID-19 in the 23 U.S. states reporting such data. (The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently began requiring nursing homes to report COVID-19 cases directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) 

“Facilities require adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks, and gowns. They also need personal and environmental cleaning supplies, including soap, sanitizer, and disinfectant cleaners,” says Zahner. “When necessary supports and supplies are not available, public health’s role in assurance and advocacy can be tapped to intervene with long-term care owners or regulators, to require that safety and quality gaps are addressed.” 

“Public health professionals can help long-term care communities be prepared for the probability of future outbreaks of COVID-19 and other communicable diseases by assisting in the development of infection control plans,” adds Zahner. “Public health professionals can also provide staff development and education for residents and their families. When a vaccine becomes available, public health agencies can immunize residents or support facility staff in doing so.” 

Even during a pandemic, public health departments focus on prevention. 

“Public health departments everywhere work to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, prevent chronic disease and injury, ensure a healthy environment to live in, support mothers and children in being healthy, and link people to needed health care services,” says Zahner. “Due to limited resources coming primarily from county property taxes, most health departments have to prioritize their services based on local needs.” 

Zahner had an early introduction to public health. 

“When I was in sixth grade, the county health nurse came to my school and discovered I was near-sighted and couldn’t read the blackboard,” says Zahner. “I was impressed that even though I wasn’t sick, that nurse made my life better.” 

“When I was in nursing school, I found that I was interested in helping people stay well and in their communities,” says Zahner. “The concept of ‘working upstream’ to prevent disease made all the sense in the world to me. I got my first job as a public health nurse 40 years ago and have been committed to public health promotion and disease prevention since then.” 

–Diane Farsetta