Imagine your singular professional goal is to protect the health and well-being of others — a challenge on a normal day, given the public’s varied personal habits and histories, and decades of underinvestment in your field. And then, along comes a pandemic.
Suddenly, you’re not just battling diabetes, mental illness and opioid addiction within segments of your community; you’re also charged with keeping the entire population safe from a novel coronavirus that no one yet understands. It’s taking lives, shutting down schools and businesses, causing chaos in the financial markets and terrifying the country. There’s no vaccine for it, no treatment for it and no clues about when it might end.
That was the situation Maryland’s 24 health officers (one for each county and Baltimore City) faced as COVID-19 swept the globe in 2020. Since the beginning, they’ve acted with a unity of purpose in our best interests under trying and exhausting circumstances. They’ve put boots on the ground in communities to bolster relationships and information sharing across groups. They’ve traced contacts, distributed protective gear and administered tests on a mass scale. And they endeavored to do it all equitably. All this, while also trying to quell their own fears and those of their families, and to manage their daily household affairs.
But this year, the second of the pandemic, took a particular toll, with 2021 deaths surpassing 2020’s; misinformation abounding; and politicization of the virus, safety precautions and the newly available vaccines growing. Some public officials improperly pressured health officers to go against best practices, and some community members harassed them. Two resigned, one was fired, and several had police details assigned to watch over them because of credible threats that were made toward them. Yet those health officers who could, continued their important work, often for piddling pay, and they did it for us.
For those reasons, and countless others, Maryland health officers are The Baltimore Sun’s 2021 Marylanders of the Year.
Pre-pandemic, many people had no idea who the state’s community health officers were or even what they did. They’re not in it for the accolades. They keep life humming behind the scenes, ensuring we have potable water to drink and safe food handling in restaurants. They work to promote good nutrition, combat disease and educate mothers-to-be on having healthy babies. It’s a challenging job, made exponentially more so by the pandemic.
Right now, omicron, the most infectious variant of COVID yet, is tearing through the state; available health department data is incomplete because of a cyberattack; and testing capabilities — both at home and in office — are far outstripped by the demand. The governor, who tested positive for COVID last week, has predicted this winter will bring the “worst surge” of hospitalizations of the entire pandemic. And on top of it all, we’re suffering from COVID fatigue, with many of us feeling too tired to do our parts anymore. It’s a deadly combination.
So, here’s what the state’s health officers would like you to know: Vaccination is the best shot we have at ending the crisis. Get a first, a second, and then a third dose — and any others that are recommended along the way. Mask up when it’s warranted, wash your hands frequently and steer clear of close contact with anyone who’s not in your immediate family.
Health officers are learning in real time the best ways to handle this virus — the biggest challenge of their careers — and sharing that information with you as quickly as possible. Please listen, and then thank them. Now is not the time to let your guard down. People are still dying, this thing hasn’t gone away. Unfortunately, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And here’s one more plea from Baltimore City’s health commissioner, Letitia Dzirasa:
“I would ask the public to just generally show health officers and their fellow man grace. We are all going through a pandemic for the first time together,” she said. “We’re all learning … we’re all human.”
Amen to that.