Opinion: Prepare now for next public health crisis

When the world shut down, I was working for Hospice of Chattanooga, a network of caregivers devoted to helping patients and their families navigate profoundly challenging moments through compassionate end-of-life care. As a certified palliative care administrator and someone who has spent most of my career in this field, I knew very well how complex and uncertain these periods can be for many families. Candidly, our society does an inadequate job of preparing us to grapple with grief and the loss of life.

At the time — Friday, March 13, 2020 — we had no idea how substantial that loss of life would become. That was the day that the city of Chattanooga issued its first public health directive about the coronavirus, a couple of days after the NBA had decided to cancel the entire remainder of its season and before more severe stay-at-home orders were issued. At the time, none of us knew who Anthony Fauci was and most of us were hopeful that the entire thing would be resolved in a matter of weeks.

Officially speaking, the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States lasted 1,189 days. The federal government's final directive about COVID-19 came to an end at midnight on May 13, 2023. By then, more than 1 million Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19. Vaccines have slowed, but not totally halted, COVID and its variants' circulation through our workplaces and neighborhoods. People with pre-existing conditions, weakened immune systems, or any number of comorbidities are still at very high risk. Even today, the virus continues to claim more than 1,000 fatalities every week.

When the pandemic "ended," so to speak, I was in my office at Journey Health Foundation — the nonprofit charitable giving organization that was born out when Hospice of Chattanooga's parent company was sold to another organization last year. The foundation's mandate is to use our resources to positively impact the public health of the Chattanooga region, with a focus on those neighborhoods and families in greatest need. If the aftershocks of the pandemic's 1,189 days will be felt for many months and years to come, then we believe that adjusting to these aftershocks requires us to make bolder and more creative commitments to preventive health care.

The most vulnerable among us suffered disproportionately. In some communities, public health outcomes were already unacceptably poor. Everyone deserves equal access to preventive measures such as vaccines, but our commitment to health equity must not stop there; everyone also deserves access to healthy food, safe streets and parks, and life-saving preventive care.

Perhaps the most disturbing pandemic aftershock we will feel is our country's often-overlooked mental health crisis. Among seniors and teens in particular, the isolation and uncertainty caused by COVID's lockdown measures seems to have sharply worsened what the U.S. Surgeon General describes as a crisis of "loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection." This harm to America's mental health will not repair itself automatically and warrants serious attention.

COVID-19 revealed many cracks in our systems, but in doing so, provided a blueprint for how to repair them. We owe it to the lives we lost and the unfathomable sacrifices of our medical professionals to do just that, especially before the next pandemic arrives. Journey Health Foundation looks forward to playing our part to invest in these and other areas, for the benefit of all Hamilton County residents, so that we can avoid the kind of suffering and loss that defined the pandemic for so many families.

We cannot afford to be caught off guard again — and we have no reason to be. Building a more resilient and functional health care system starts by taking an honest assessment of where we've fallen short in the past, and learning whatever we can from that painful period, especially before it recedes from our memories.

Tracy Wood is the president and CEO of Journey Health Foundation.