109: Reflections on Black History Month

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, reflects on current events in the context of Black History Month, on the first day of the month-long recognition; Dr. Anne Zink, ASTHO’s President-elect, considers the...

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, reflects on current events in the context of Black History Month, on the first day of the month-long recognition; Dr. Anne Zink, ASTHO’s President-elect, considers the pandemic’s lessons and what’s next for the nation; ASTHO releases its top ten list of public health policy opportunities; and a new COVID-19 vaccine comparison chart is available online.

ASTHO News Release: ASTHO Unveils Top 10 Public Health State Policy Issues to Watch in 2022

ASTHO Issue Brief: COVID-19 Vaccine Comparison

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This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Tuesday, February 1st, 2022. I'm Robert Johnson.

Now, today's news from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.


Today marks to start of Black History Month, an official tradition since 1976 and an idea that's more than a hundred years old. Public health leaders like Dr. Ngozi Ezike are thinking about Black History Month in the context of today's events.


I think the momentum that we saw following the public murder of Mr. George Floyd really gave me hope that we were moving into a new day that would be more in sync with what our civil rights leaders around the world had been marching for and dying for.

And I hope even in the midst of the vitriol and the division that we remember that, and that we get back to putting equity, and racial reconciliation, and anti-racism on the top of our priority list for the betterment of mankind.


Dr. Ezike is an internist and pediatrician, and the first Black woman in the agency's 143 year history to lead the Illinois Department of Public Health.


The pandemic has led to a lifetime of lessons learned jammed into two chaotic and devastating years for people in the U.S. and across the world. ASTHO's president elect, Dr. Anne Zink of Alaska, is one of those considering what's next. Her reflections are today's morning conversation.

So here we are, entering the third calendar year of the pandemic. How has it changed you as a public health professional—or has it?


I mean, this has been the most intense and honestly greatest learning experience of my life. My dad always told me to make sure I took a job where I was always learning and I told him he doesn't have to worry in that space.

It has made me reflect a lot on basic science, on the importance of common shared goals and humanity, of the importance of clear and concise communication, and just the universal frustration with illness and sickness and how that can be used in different ways.

So, it's changed me a lot, both as a direct care provider in the emergency department as well as a public health professional.


I have a feeling your next answer may draw on what you just said, but is there any one thing in particular that you feel you've learned about your work during the pandemic that maybe you weren't thinking about before the pandemic?


I think the biggest thing I have learned and continue to see—and I think I saw this partially before the pandemic, but it continues to come up in all sorts of parts of our response—is the important connection between healthcare and public health, as well as the space, place, and environment that people live, work, and play in.

Our economies can't be healthy if we don't have healthy people, we can't have healthy people if they don't have a job or a roof over their head. And oftentimes we can silo all of these different workforces and efforts and energies into public health or direct healthcare or economy. But the reality is—and I think we've really seen that during this pandemic—how intertwined they are.

And when we invest in prevention, when we invest in our health, when we invest in public health, it makes the entire fabric of our society stronger. It makes our economy stronger and makes our security stronger. And I think it's just been a good reminder of how interconnected we are and how interconnected our systems are and how critical prevention is.


I know you spend a lot of time thinking about leadership and style of leadership. How has your leadership style evolved during all of this?


For me, I've always seen my role in the emergency department as walking side by side with my patients. I come to them with the science and information that I have gotten from medical school and residency and from years of practice; but with every patient, I have to be open to their experience and their symptoms, their history, their fears, their limitations, and follow-up, and what they can and can't do to be able to care for and to promote their own overall wellbeing and health. I think the same is true with this pandemic.

We may have ideas on what is best for someone's health, their best ways to protect themselves from COVID. But I think as public health professionals, we really do have to walk side by side with the public knowing and recognizing their limitations. I think it has challenged all of us to be better listeners, to listen to the fears and the frustrations and the anger from all sides on this pandemic, and to continue to find that common ground, that common humanity.

I think it's one of the things I love about the emergency department is we all bleed the same color. We all have the same desires when your kiddo is sick at 2:00 AM or your mother's been in a car accident. And I think finding those same common desires and interests is incredibly important as a public health professional to never lose hope for a better and healthier future, and to continue to always work for that.

But to make sure that we are listening to and working with the public, the politicians, the press, our providers, patients along that course and remembering that we are side by side with this journey with them. We aren't necessarily their teachers; we are their partners, and we really have to just continue to listen so we can continue to pivot and make sure that collectively are promoting the public health.


Last question—what are you hoping for in this new year?


I'm hoping to focus on other things. I mean, COVID is important, don't get me wrong, and it is a highly contagious infectious disease. But we continue to move through these phases, and we need to make sure that we're not using the tools of two years ago to address the challenges of today. And I think we need to really be focusing on other things that make us healthy and well.

Here in Alaska, we're celebrating Healthy You 2022, and each quarter is dedicated to a different component of being healthy and well. So, this quarter is on physical exercise and just talking about every time we talk about anything from a public health perspective, throwing in, "This is the importance of being physically active." What we're each doing, I think it's helping our team remember to take care of themselves as we enter into this third year.

And I'm hoping that we can really take the lessons learned from this pandemic. You know, I worry we're actually less prepared for another pandemic now as a country than we were even at the beginning of this. I wish I was not saying that. I wish I would have said the opposite, that we have taken lessons and we were more prepared.

But I think we need to step back from COVID, and I think we need to think about what makes us healthy and well. We need to invest in public health, we need to invest in our IT digital health infrastructure, and we need to invest in those basic preventative measures that make us healthy and well. And so, I'm really hoping that we can take the lessons learned and the energy from COVID and pivoting that to these critical systems that need to be addressed and the critical work of prevention.



Also today, the New Year means a new slate of policy opportunities and challenges. ASTHO has developed its top 10 public health policies to watch in 2022—we've been talking about many of them the last several days. The list includes immunizations, health equity, and yesterday's topic, youth access to tobacco products. We've got more conversations coming in the days ahead. Check out the full list with the link in the show notes.


Finally this morning, ASTHO's COVID-19 vaccine comparison chart is available now. It's been updated with the latest information about COVID vaccines, boosters, and side effects. You can find it using the link in the show notes.


That'll do it for today's report.


Be sure to join us again tomorrow morning for more ASTHO news and information.

I'm Robert Johnson. You're listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great day.

Anne Zink MD FACEP

Chief Medical Officer for the State of Alaska

Ngozi Ezike MD

Director, Illinois Department of Public Health