The many faces of public health

The Yours, Mine, and Ours — Public Health series highlights how our state's  public health agencies keep us healthy, safe, and informed about issues impacting physical and mental health in our communities, homes, workplaces, and schools. The series is made possible with funding from the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.
Sara Simmonds and staff
In Michigan, 45 local health departments work jointly with other components of the state’s public health system, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), and with organizations like the Michigan Association of Local Public Health (MALPH). The work of employees of public health departments is heavily based on the communities they serve and the safety of the people that live in them. Prevention, protection and promotion is the name of the game for the workforce in this field. 

Public health in action is a sanitarian performing on-site inspections in food establishments to ensure proper food handling or a deputy health officer obtaining grant funding for programs like the Women’s, Infant and Children Program (WIC) to ensure mothers in the community have breastfeeding support. 

For the greater good

Public health is an immense process that ensures Michiganders can live safe and healthy lives. 

“If we didn’t have healthy drinking water, proper management of waste, sanitary conditions in restaurants, or safe swimming pools for people to swim in, we would have a very unhealthy and sick community,” says Sara Simmonds, environmental health division director, Kent County Health Department (KCHD). 

For Simmonds, KCHD’s mission to serve, protect, and promote a healthy community for all is her main objective. She began her career in the Peace Corps, going to Bolivia to learn about natural resource management. Afterwards, she became a sanitarian for the KCHD. For more than 15 years, she has been inspecting septic wells and tanks, testing water, educating people on proper safety rules, and performing risk assessments to prevent harm to the public. 

“Sanitarians work a lot in regulation and education,” says Simmonds. “We protect and promote primarily through regulation, but we also use education, which is essential because we want to change behavior.”

Sara Simmonds
In her current role, Simmonds takes on the responsibility of providing guidance to the division and being a support to the team. 

“My work is more big-picture," Simmonds says. "I’m figuring out the budget, hiring, and building the relationships needed to build towards the future and meeting the community need.” 

One of the projects Simmonds is working on is air quality in Grand Rapids. She assists a local group who is creating and utilizing air monitors. She connects with agencies such as the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the MDHHS to create a system to ensure funding reaches the local level. 

Simmonds looks forward to public health in the future. With calls to action like the National Association of County and City Health OfficialsPublic Health 3.0 as inspiration, she is excited to see that public health is focusing on social and environmental justice issues as well as health equity. Public Health 3.0 emphasizes collaborative action that directly impacts the social determinants of health inequities.

“That is where public health was meant to be,” she says. “We were meant to work with people who are the most vulnerable and empower people in these communities to be able to make proper choices and to know where these resources are.”

Invisible until visible

When it comes to public health, many different categories emerge. Most of the time when health is brought up, people think of a medical, clinical, one-on-one doctor-to-patient approach. With public health, the approach to a health issue is different. Instead of only becoming active when a problem comes to the forefront, public health puts preventative measures paramount to ensure the health and safety of the public at large.

Matthew Budd“Public health is really important because a lot of the changes and the improvements in our life expectancy, our quality of life, are related to things that we do with water, with food, with housing, and with access to services that we need,” says Matthew Budd, deputy health officer, Jackson County Health Department (JCHD). 

Budd works with the state’s chief medical officer, other health officers, and local health jurisdictions to implement policies and structures to ensure the county’s health programs are safely and effectively serving the public. He also advocates for public health policies that benefit the county and participates in educating the community about healthy practices and resources to prevent illness.

“I think a lot of what we do in public health is very invisible until it's visible,” says Budd. “On a communicable disease site, if we have any type of food recall, that is all down to the local health departments where those environmental health teams are going out there, finding out how people are getting sick. Then our nurses start doing an investigation trying to figure out what is causing this.”

Budd’s background includes being a nurse in an intensive care unit. He has been in the public health field for only four years, hired at the apex of the pandemic.

“It's only when things stop working that public health comes back into focus,” says Budd. “I think what we've really seen over the last couple of decades is a shrinking of the public health workforce. Most of our programs are receiving less money than we did over a decade ago, so public health has been underfunded. We're quietly working in the background to keep people healthy.”

Budd and his coworkers understand that public health is crucial to a long, healthy and substantial life. 

“One of the best things about public health is that you're working with very passionate people,” he says. “People here at public health, they're doing what they do because they want to help their community.” 
“People here at public health, they're doing what they do because they want to help their community.”
Community partnerships

In the world of public health, the CDC’s focus is on a national level. The MDHHS and MALPH focus on the state level. Local health departments focus on counties. Community-based health organizations focus on smaller communities and jurisdictions. Partnerships and connections among public health’s various professionals can serve as effective vehicles for collective action to ensure the public’s safety needs are met. 

“It really is like this unified stance of being able to take care of one another and making sure that people you know and have access to those health resources. And if they don't have access, then we're finding the way to bridge that gap in some way, shape or form,” says Kaylynne Miesen, community health promotion specialist, Barry-Eaton District Health Department (BEDHD).

Kaylynne MiesenMiesen’s role in public health is heavily based on educating members of local community-based health organizations on health practices. She also promotes resources and essential services to create connections with members of the community and utilizes those connections to ensure safe and healthy practices. She applies for grants that will enhance local health programs.
“We really trust our community partners and the weight that they pull in the community itself to create those partnerships. Through that, we are able to interact with our community through those organizations,” says Miesen. “It’s a lot of networking and having all those connections in the right spot.” 

Miesen uses data-driven and evidence-based information gathered through surveys and focus groups to understand what the community needs. 

“We actually partnered with MSU [Michigan State University], and we started this huge survey just specific to substance use,” says Miesen. “We found out substance use was becoming a concern, so we applied for a grant. Now we are promoting education on harm reduction services and ways that people can use safely.”

BEDHD received CDC's Overdose Data to Action (OD2A) grant in September 2023, bringing close to $1 million per year to implement prevention activities and collect data on nonfatal and fatal overdoses. BEDHD will be able to respond more quickly and effectively to residents’ needs, using data to drive action that reduces overdose deaths and related harms. 
Survey information helped Barry-Eaton District Health Department identify gaps and issues in order to determine a focus for the next three years.
Right now, Barry and Eaton counties are conducting  the Healthy! Capital Counties community health needs assessment. Done once every three years, the survey information identifies gaps and issues and guides the health department’s focus for the next three years. 

“It really helps when people fill out those surveys. The data we are able to collect from them allows us to really look for the grants that are speaking true to the community and find where our gaps are,” says Miesen. 

For Miesen, public health reflects the bonds of a community. 

“I think when you get to see a community succeed, there’s a huge growth factor and this confidence in your community and the pride that goes along with it,” she says. “When you see everyone is doing well and has what they need it shows and that’s why public health is important.” 

Monique Bedford is an aspiring journalist, currently freelancing for Issue Media Group publications. She graduated from Oakland University in fall of 2022 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in Spanish. Monique has experience in solutions journalism, media design, and hosting a radio show. When she's not writing, you can always find her studying different cultures and languages, reading her favorite newspaper, The New York Times, and spending quality time with her friends and family.

Photos by Tommy Allen.
Photos of Kaylynne Miesen, Matthew Budd, and BEDHD survey courtesy subjects. Photo of nurse and patient by Gustavo Fring via

The Yours, Mine, and Ours — Public Health series highlights how our state's  public health agencies keep us healthy, safe, and informed about issues impacting physical and mental health in our communities, homes, workplaces, and schools. The series is made possible with funding from the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.

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