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Global Health Thought Leadership

Taking a Page from Airports to Fix the U.S. Public Health System

By Judy Monroe

On a recent trip through LaGuardia Airport as I made my way into the terminal and through security, I was amazed at the airport’s transformation. What was once one of the nation’s least-favorite airports has now been transformed into one of the best. I had to pause to consider how its transformation can serve as a vision for the future of our nation’s public health system. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, much has been written about the need to revamp and modernize our public health system. However, public health is not as well understood as the basic function of an airport, which is meant to efficiently get passengers from point A to point B. Travelers understand the displeasure of crowded and noisy airports, taking laptops out of bags to go through security and trying to get the timing right for pushing your bin onto the conveyor belt. 

While we understand flights may be delayed or canceled due to safety concerns, most folks would rather be inconvenienced than take undue risk. As a society, we place a high value on prevention when it comes to aviation.  

Unfortunately, many people don’t have that same perspective when it comes to public health, even as 300–400 people continue to die from COVID-19 daily. That’s the equivalent of a large jumbo jet daily crashing without survivors. And that doesn’t consider the millions more who die or become ill each year from other public health threats, like tobacco-related afflictions, cardiovascular disease, violence or so many other preventable illnesses. 

Left: Award winning vaccine confidence posters designed by University of Alabama faculty member Jonathan Cumberland; Right: Puppets from the short film “Kingdom of Remedy,” created by high school students and supported by West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology.

It’s inherently more difficult to understand the state-of-the-art technology needed in public health laboratories and data systems. Few grasp the expertise required for tracking diseases to keep everyone safe from health threats—ranging from infectious and chronic diseases to injury and violence prevention to environmental contaminants and acts of terrorism. 

To keep us from harm’s way and detect emerging diseases, our public health agencies need to be reinforced so they can be transformed. 

That transformation will take commitment, financing, and a comprehensive plan. During urgent public health emergencies, action is needed fast. In medicine, the “Golden Hour” is a term used for stroke and cardiac management that can make the difference in life and death or long-term morbidity. We keep missing the Golden Hour in public health emergencies due to slow and complicated financing and a chronically under-resourced public health system. 

Congress and state legislatures will continue to look back on public health decisions made during the COVID-19 pandemic that could have improved outcomes, which is appropriate. As they do so, I hope they also focus on the important role they play in providing the dependable and sustainable funding necessary to establish a strong base from which our nation can transform our public health system. 

Doing so will provide critically-needed support to bring in the skilled workforce required to tackle today’s complex health challenges, as well as the robust and connected data systems needed to provide up-to-the minute tracking of outbreaks and other threats. I also call for Congress to provide the public health system with the authorities they need to do their job—breaking down the silos between jurisdictions that inhibit sharing of information and resources. 

Transformation is needed in our public health system, and I believe LaGuardia Airport gives us a visible example of what transformation looks like. Perhaps a new rally call for public health should be “LaGuardia!” 


I would also like to share with you two stories about public health that are taking place right here in Atlanta:

Community is the bedrock of any city. Local community-based organization Ser Familia is proving that every day, by providing vital support and connection to Atlanta’s Hispanic population—from parenting classes, to couples and youth programs and domestic violence service.

A scene from the offices of Ser Familia, an Atlanta-based community-based organization that works with the Hispanic community on a wide range of health and wellness-related issues.

“Our Latinos and our Hispanic community have a lot of challenges,” says Belisa Urbina, Ser Familia’s CEO. “There are very few services, and sometimes these are very difficult to get, in particular if that family is undocumented or is a family with mixed status.”

You can read more about this amazing organization and watch an interview with Urbina here.

And in another example of the unique ways local organizations can support public health, a special art exhibition is taking place at the David J. Sencer CDC museum through March 2023. Titled Trusted Messengers: Building Confidence in COVID-19 Vaccines Through Art, the exhibition showcases original art from six organizations working to increase vaccine acceptance in their communities. Works from professional artists and high school students alike are currently on display, as well as videos and documentation of additional arts projects across the U.S. Learn about a few of the featured pieces and get more information here.

Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.


This is sponsored content.

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