If you are looking for a job that requires exacting scientific credentials, pays less than you can expect elsewhere and is sure to inspire derision from the people you serve, may we suggest a career in public health.

Last week, as we entered a new, less restrictive phase of the pandemic, Louise Rogers, chief of the San Mateo County Health Department, issued a statement essentially announcing that she and her team of heroes would be stepping back into their usual role. Instead of making decrees and mandating safety measures, she said, her team would “return to the more traditional role of public health.” That means the never-ending effort to maintain the balance between the risks of our environment and our “freedom” to do whatever we want, when we want.

You don’t have to read very deeply between the lines of Rogers’ message of Feb. 15 to see that we are not out of the woods yet — despite the end of the statewide mask mandate and the fact that many of us are more than willing to return to our pre-pandemic socializing petri dish.

She acknowledges that the decision to ease regulations is “landing differently” for different people, depending upon their own level of risk and so on. And she states in no uncertain terms that the risk continues for all of us to one degree or another.

The level of transmission is still considered high. At last check, 382 San Mateo County residents were testing positive for COVID-19 every day. While that is down nearly 80 percent from early January numbers, it is not zero. When Rogers wrote her letter, at least 55 people were in local hospitals because of the virus. More than 924,000 Americans had died due to COVID-19; 83,231 of them in California.

Despite that, per capita, California has fared better than most states. The death rate of states like Mississippi (388 per 100,000 residents) is approaching twice that of California, (209 per 100,000 people). It corresponds with public health efforts like those Rogers led that promoted vaccines, social distancing, mask mandates and the closure of some public spaces when transmission was particularly high. In San Mateo County, 82 percent of residents are fully vaccinated. More than 400,000 of us have even received the booster.

Public servants like Rogers and Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow worked tirelessly under impossible circumstances to keep us from killing each other by spreading this virus. For their efforts they earned scorn and even death threats in many communities. Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press reported earlier this month that more than 180 top state and local public health officials had either quit or been fired in the last 10 months — the largest exodus from the profession in American history.

We owe Rogers, Morrow and their entire team a debt of gratitude. In fact, there should be a parade in their honor when it’s safe to have one again. Failing that, we should commit to fully funding our public health departments and affording these scientists and medical professionals the respect they have earned over the last two years. They and their colleagues have saved millions of lives.

— Clay Lambert

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