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Preventable diseases and mental health: the long-term effects of the pandemic

Local public health directors discuss the broader implications of the coronavirus

While it remains to be seen exactly what the broader health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic will be, local public health officials say the public health crisis has already exposed some weaknesses of the health care system.

“It shined a light on a lot of those [health] disparities that cause those adverse outcomes and not just when we’re dealing with communicable diseases, but in all of our health outcomes,” Danielle Pettit-Majewski, Washington County Public Health Director said.

In looking at data on cases in her county, Pettit-Majewski said many are people of color or people who are lower income and may be at higher risk for exposure or are potentially more susceptible to the underlying conditions that exacerbate negative outcomes should they come in contact with the virus.

According to data from the Iowa Department of Public Health, as of Thursday afternoon, positive cases by race show 57% of individuals are white, 12% are black or African American, 10% are Asian or Pacific Highlander and 21% are identified as “other.” In positive cases by ethnicity, 57% are not Hispanic or Latino, 26% are Hispanic or Latino and 17% are pending investigation.

“These are people who have a higher health disparity, sometimes they have less access to healthy foods so it’s an across the board statement,” she said.

The public health director added the pandemic has also emphasized the need for public health infrastructure to address preventable diseases, especially ones that make individuals more vulnerable to the virus.

“Some bigger things to think about in terms of the coronavirus is when you think about what underlying health conditions like diabetes, obesity, asthma, high blood pressure — a lot of those diseases are preventable. I hope what this shows is how important it is to focus on prevention and invest in public health — healthy food access, mental health, making communities more walkable so people can exercise safely,” she said.

Chris Estle, Public Health Director for Jefferson County, said in addition to preventable diseases, mental health will continue to be at the forefront of discussion moving forward, especially for seniors and others who already deal with isolation.

“It’s difficult. The senior population already tends to be socially isolated anyway, especially in the winter months. Oftentimes they’re higher risk for depression, but not just for seniors — for everyone,” she said.

Estle added it may be especially hard for graduating seniors and their parents, who are preparing to enter their collegiate careers without the usual celebrations.

“It’s an emotional time, for students and parents, when a child is leaving the nest and they don’t get to experience the rituals that help that send off. It can be emotionally devastating. We have to be cognizant of that,” she said.

And though closures are beginning to lift, it may still be difficult or dangerous for people to resume activities that often help mitigate stress and bring joy to people.

“Not being able partake in parts of daily living that help decrease stress or participate in activities that bring us pleasure is difficult. Then you throw in the financial aspect and it’s even more difficult — it’s going to take a long time for us to recover from this,” she added.