Serious public health issues await the next POTUS

Serious public health issues await the next POTUS
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As voters go to the polls to select our next commander-in-chief, public health professionals across America are focused on what the president-elect will inherit: a nation in the throes of some of the most difficult and challenging health problems our country has ever faced.

The pandemic, of course, tops this inauspicious list. Today America leads the world in the overall death rate from COVID-19, and new cases are rising in nearly every state. White House Chief of Staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsWashington Post calls on Democrats to subpoena Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Meadows for testimony on Jan. 6 Trump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' Trump said whoever leaked information about stay in White House bunker should be 'executed,' author claims MORE’ recent admission that “we are not going to control the pandemic” stands in stark contrast to President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE’s view that we are “rounding the corner.”

To stop the coronavirus and promote public health, the next president must implement a national COVID-19 plan, one based on science and not politics, that includes: reliable and accessible testing for all, robust and rapid contract tracing, mask mandates, quarantine protocols, hand washing and social distancing. He must inspire all 50 states, and unify the American people around a singular focus of working together to defeat COVID-19. And he will need to communicate the value of vaccines and articulate a plan for vaccine delivery.

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If we want the pandemic to end, the next president must be willing to tell the truth and give us the facts, even when the news he has to share may not always be what we want to hear. We need a leader we can trust, someone who will be bold and show us the way forward with both compassion and pragmatism. 

The president-elect will preside over a country where mental illness stemming from the coronavirus has skyrocketed in almost every demographic. Approximately 25 percent of students in college and high school are aware of someone who has had suicidal thoughts during the pandemic. Five percent have attempted it. Youth mental health was already a problem before the pandemic, where suicide ranked as the second-highest cause of death for those between the ages of 10-34 in 2018

Adults facing economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic are also struggling. Suicides among military members have increased by as much as 30 percent during COVID-19. Domestic violence is on the rise, as victims are sheltering in place with their abusers. Anxiety about when the pandemic will end has increased stress. Broadly, a coalition led by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that nearly $50 billion is needed to address mental health issues. Our next president must work with Congress to make mental health care services accessible to all. 

Our next president will lead a nation where nearly 30 million people still do not have health coverage. It’s one of the single largest expenses families face, and costs are on the rise. Many Americans are already choosing between putting food on their tables or paying for their health insurance due to the current economic climate. We need a president committed to finding a workable solution so that everyone is covered. 

And consider this: As the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 increases, and access to an effective vaccine remains months away (at best), more than a million Americans who recover from the virus will be classified as having a pre-existing condition and potentially at risk of being ineligible for future health coverage. We should find ways to strengthen the Affordable Care Act to ensure coverage for all, rather than abandon it altogether. We need action from the next presidential administration that treats health care as a right and will prioritize access to insurance. 

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Our next president must also confront the health consequences of institutional racism. “[A] person who’s classified as black in the United States,” says former NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, “is less likely to have access to high-quality health care, is more likely to be subjected to unequal treatment by their physician and is more likely to live in a neighborhood where they have other obstacles to their health.” Statistics in Louisiana support this, where COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates doubled expected levels based on demographic makeup. Our next president must work to rebuild trust in these communities and expand health care access for everyone during the current crisis, and beyond. 

Serious public health issues await the winner of this year’s presidential election and millions of lives are at stake. 

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.