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Local health officials outline priorities and concerns for new year

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Michigan’s public health, food and sanitary codes are among policy focus areas for local health officials in the new year.

The Michigan Association for Local Public Health (MALPH) said lately it’s seen increased threats that could weaken the power of health leaders.

Executive director Norm Hess said he’d like lawmakers make it easier to understand what public health officials do.

“It’s a very, very long document, the public health code. And I think that some of it is just cleaning up some of the language that is confusing or difficult for people to really comprehend,” Hess told reporters during a roundtable discussion Tuesday.

Hess said discussions around the food code that are also still very early would likely fall outside of the state Department of Health and Human Services’ purview. But they could potentially address changes in the marketplace like the rise of food trucks or pop-up restaurants.

He said creating a statewide sanitary code could clean up what’s currently a patchwork of local regulations surrounding wastewater treatment and other areas.

During Tuesday’s roundtable, Hess also brought up that the state has seen around a third of its public health officers leave their jobs within the last three years.

Officials say that’s because of a combination of scheduled retirements, comparatively lower wages, and fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hess said the field needs to attract new talent.

“We are in conversations frequently with schools of public health as well as even community colleges. You know, not many people wake up in the sixth grade and say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a public health officer.’ Because they just don’t know what that means,” Hess said.

Public health officers lead local health departments and put policies in place to address community needs.

MALPH leadership stressed how that relationship between those departments and the general public became strained during the pandemic.

Organization president Jimena Loveluck said childhood vaccinations are down and other services have trailed off.

“I think it’s really part of what we’re focusing on in local public health is getting back to those public health services that we weren’t able to focus on as much during the height of COVID because we redirected all of our resources pretty much to address COVID,” Loveluck said.

She blamed part of that strained relationship between health departments and the public on the limited resources available for pandemic response.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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