Johnston County Public Health Director Marilyn Pearson led an all-out push during the pandemic to take COVID-19 tests to churches, schools, recreation centers — wherever they might help save lives.
That initially made her and her staff heroes to many in their rural eastern North Carolina community. But once the COVID-19 vaccines emerged, along with skepticism, misinformation and criticism of mask mandates, some painted her as untrustworthy. As they did to public health leaders across the country, some vaccine critics sent her ugly emails and voicemails, and harangued her on social media. “There were times many of us, including me, said, ‘I don’t think I signed up for this,’” she recalls. But “the people we serve deserve leadership that will do the things that need to be done and say the things that need to be said, so we can protect our health like we need to.”
Dr. Pearson, a family physician, stayed off Facebook®, embraced support from her family and friends and kept following the science. She says COVID-19 highlighted two key problem areas in public health: the importance of having unified, actionable health data and strong, clear communications.
Data systems need to work together across agencies so workers don’t lose time during an emergency doing double data entry. And communications need to be strong, she says, because viruses shift and adapt as they’re attacked.
“Once people heard one thing, they thought that would always stay the same and shouldn’t change,” she says. “But we have to make it clear that things will change, that the responses will change, that mitigation will change, that treatment will change. All of that will change because we are all working to respond to the virus and protect each other.” She notes that people understand the role of public health better now, even if they don’t always agree about quarantines, masks and other public health protocols.
The optimist in her believes the hard lessons learned the past few years will save lives in the future — even if it means public health leaders like her might still take flak. “There’s been good and bad to it all, but I think the vast majority of people understand the importance of prevention. That’s what public health is all about — looking at the big picture and how we can help everybody be healthier.”
DATA SYSTEMS NEED TO WORK TOGETHER ACROSS AGENCIES SO WORKERS DON’T LOSE TIME DURING AN EMERGENCY DOING DOUBLE DATA ENTRY. AND COMMUNICATIONS NEED TO BE STRONG… BECAUSE VIRUSES SHIFT AND ADAPT AS THEY’RE ATTACKED.
Photo Credit: Aura Marzouk
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