The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how understaffed and underfunded New Jersey’s public health services are as state, county and local workers have been strained to set up testing sites, trace contacts of infected people, track disease trends, educate the public about vaccines, immunize as as much as possible and quickly and fairly distribute therapeutic agents.
They tried valiantly, but nearly 35,000 people have died from COVID in New Jersey and at least 2.7 million have been infected. The state’s death rate from COVID was the ninth highest in the United States, making it the only Mid-Atlantic or Northeastern state in this unfortunate top 10.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will now award $1 million to Glassboro-based nonprofit Acenda Integrated Health to develop a public health institute that will help recruit and train New Jersey health professionals, collect and analyze health data, and inform future policy . .
For too long, health care in New Jersey has been chronically underfunded, leaving agencies under-resourced for routine tasks, much less for a crisis, said Maisha Simmons, director of the New Jersey Grants Foundation.
The institute will be the first in the country to “advance health equity,” she said. The New Jersey-based foundation, the nation’s largest health philanthropy, has focused in recent years on creating a “culture of health” across the country that empowers people regardless of who they are, what their income is or where they live. One aspect of this is the development of a stronger health infrastructure.
The main goals of the planned public health institute in New Jersey will be to eliminate the state’s racial and ethnic disparities in terms of access to health care and to coordinate actions across state jurisdictions to develop a more effective response to health needs, according to the foundation. These were identified as major concerns following a recent study by the Bluestein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. In addition, the institute can attract funding from the federal government and major philanthropic organizations.
Thirty-three states already have public health institutes, but New Jersey does not.
The state health department was involved in planning the institute. “We look forward to further exploring how the public health institute will build on New Jersey’s progress in advancing health equity and innovation, helping to reduce New Jersey’s health disparities and addressing the social determinants of health,” said Judith Persichili, state health commissioner.
The work of public health is often invisible to the population it serves. While most people think of individual medical needs for a doctor or prescription drug, public health works behind the scenes to prevent disease, make the environment safer, and improve public health. Inspections of restaurants and swimming pools, for example, help prevent foodborne or waterborne illnesses. Children’s vaccination clinics and lead paint screening help keep people healthy. Efforts to create bike lanes or improve the safety of public parks create environments conducive to exercise and outdoor play.
COVID-19 was a crisis that showed how unprepared local health departments were to deal with a major public health crisis after years of funding cuts and staff losses. Indeed, most cities in New Jersey no longer have their own health departments, instead contracting for services with county governments, regional consortia, or neighboring municipalities. The state has less than half the health care workers per capita of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maryland, the Rutgers study found.
Acenda Integrated Health has been involved in various public health initiatives, including efforts to reduce maternal and infant mortality among blacks. The two-year grant will allow him to recruit a diverse board of directors for the institute and hire an executive director, among other tasks.