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SPH to lead five year project to strengthen the state’s public health system and workforce

A graphic image of people assembling puzzle pieces.

The public health workforce is at a breaking point. According to the de Beaumont Foundation, the United States requires approximately 80,000 additional full-time public health workers to address just the minimum foundational public health services. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated public health’s limited capacity to respond to ongoing and emergent public health needs and further exacerbated the exodus of public health professionals from the workforce; between 2017 and 2021, approximately half of the public health workforce at state and local health departments left their jobs. In addition to the declining workforce, the issues faced by public health professionals have grown ever more complex, further exacerbating health inequities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is leading a nationwide effort to boost gaps in public health staffing. Through the Public Health Infrastructure Grant, CDC seeks to strengthen the public health system’s infrastructure and workforce at all levels of public health by funding 107 state, territorial, and other large local public health departments across the country. As a grant recipient, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is working with partners throughout the state to identify immediate and long-term workforce needs. The Policy, Practice and Prevention Research Center (P3RC) at the UIC School of Public Health is a critical partner in this work, collaborating with IDPH to provide planning, evaluation, and technical assistance support to address policy and systems change in equitable ways.

“If COVID taught us anything, it’s that the disparities and inequities are profound,” said Christina Welter, principal investigator on the project, P3RC associate director and director of SPH’s DrPH in Leadership program. “This grant serves as a vital and rare opportunity to catalyze the future of public health for our workforce and to serve our communities. Afterall, our workforce is one of if not our most important asset.”

P3RC is assessing Illinois’ current public health staffing and comparing findings to national standards. This analysis will reveal any needs for increased staffing and estimate the necessary resources needed to fill these gaps. Conversations already facilitated by P3RC with local public health leaders offered immediate insight into system needs. These include the need for statewide strategic efforts to improve public health education pipelines; modernize recruitment, hiring, and retention policies and procedures; and enhance training for public health professionals.

Sarah Kerch, assistant director of leadership, workforce development and strategy with the P3RC, and current SPH DrPH student, serves as the project director for these efforts at UIC. Kerch and Welter, along with the P3RC team, will use existing information, such as public health workforce surveys and local and state health improvement plans, to stimulate dialogue among partners and identify alignment to address immediate state and local needs. These conversations and alignment will contribute to a shared agenda for sustainable, long-term success across the Illinois public health system.

“Transparency and trust are the foundational pieces of creating a shared agenda; we can use this infrastructure grant to leverage the resources best meant to do this work,” Kerch said, about the public health leaders and workers in Illinois. “Public health has been underfunded for so long, but we have a timely opportunity for Illinois public health partners to demonstrate their value.”

The P3RC will continue to support IDPH on the Public Health Infrastructure grant, which ends in 2027. This project represents just one of many collaborations between UIC School of Public Health and IDPH.