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KS doctor speaks to Congress about needs of public health departments, COVID impact

Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 9:47 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (KWCH) - Doctor Jennifer McKenney has been working on the frontlines of the pandemic and she’s been candid as a public health official about what she’s experienced trying to do her job.

“COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the entire nation. It has produced miraculously effective vaccines, as well as producing resistance to time-proven public health strategies,” Dr. McKenney told Congressional lawmakers Wednesday.

The Wilson County Local Health Officer and a physician in Fredonia, Dr. McKenney addressed Congress Wednesday on some of those challenges.

“We rural health care workers have managed patients on ventilators without ICUs. We struggle for hours to get our patients the critical care they need while they struggle to breathe. Never before have we seen how much our rural and urban communities are interconnected,” she said.

Dr. McKenney was among four public health officials speaking to the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. One of the main focuses of this hearing was preparing and rebuilding public health for the future.

She said, “We need support. We need more support from local, state and federal leaders. We are being asked to work longer and in a much more difficult and controversial work environment.”

One of the biggest challenges has been the loss of public health leadership since the start of the pandemic. The loss of talent has been ongoing for several years but made worse by COVID-19.

Dr. McKenney said, “Unfortunately, we [Wilson County Health Department] have now had a turnover of three of our four employees, employed at the start of the pandemic. We’re in the process of hiring a new health department administrator, as the last two have resigned in the last six months.”

The Association Press has been tracking data on local and state public health leaders who have resigned, retired or been fired since April 2020. The current count has 303 public health leader exits.

Kansas has 20, second in the nation behind California.

Dr. McKenney said, “Even though the virus is the enemy, their anger and frustration is often directed at public health officials like me. Kansas has seen one of the highest rates of public health leadership turnover in the nation.”

It’s anger Dr. McKenney has experienced firsthand. After a meeting on masking, a sheriff’s deputy asked to walk her out fearing for her safety.

“Attack and ask for your termination or resignation, and these are people I’ve known for my whole life. These are the things that truly hurt a community as a whole,” said Dr. McKenney.

She added, “I myself was informed that my job would be opened up for applications last fall because I focused too much on health and science and not enough on business.”

She told lawmakers, as Congress is looking at human infrastructure, public health funding needs to be a priority not only to continue with addressing COVID-19 but provide their other services.

“One lost employee is a huge hit on a health department the size of ours in our rural community, so funding, stable funding is such an important thing so that we can continue to plan for the future,” Dr. McKenney said.

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