Why public health workers are fleeing field amid coronavirus pandemic


There were days, nights and weekends in the early months of the pandemic when Denise Von Bargen was the only person running COVID tests at the public health lab in Ventura County. She once had eight or nine employees to assist her, but, one by one, they had all retired or left for other jobs.

Like other public health laboratories in California charged with broad-scale disease testing and surveillance, the Ventura lab received federal and state money for new equipment and short-term hires to bolster its response to COVID-19. But the funding was temporary, and Von Bargen, the director, could not use it to increase the salaries of her employees, who could earn more money doing less work in the private sector.

Russell Rawls, a technical specialist for the Ventura County Public Health Department, administers a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination clinic.

Operations deteriorated further last month, after the lab lost its license to run routine tests that check the county’s ocean water for deadly bacteria. It appears to have been a clerical error: The licensing paperwork changed, and the staff typically responsible for submitting the application had quit.

“The biggest threat to (public health labs) right now is not the next emerging pathogen,” said Donna Ferguson, director of the public health lab in Monterey County, “but labs closing due to lack of staffing.”



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