Why Don’t We Follow Public Health Science?

We know how to protect our housing communities from COVID-19, an infection that can devastate a housing development as it has already devastated nursing homes. But we aren’t following the essentials of public health in housing for the elderly and disabled, or in many other settings.

Michael Siegel, MD, MPH, Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health has been outspoken in his criticism of the departments’ policy to hold in-person classes. He sees that decision as ignoring the principles of public health by exposing faculty and staff, students, and the surrounding community to an increased risk for the spread of COVID-19. He argues that public health can be effectively taught with online classes. And he accuses the university of acting out of financial motives, and ignoring public health principles.

A basic principle of public health is that we don't force people to involuntarily assume significant, preventable health risks. Furthermore, we don't undermine that principle by arguing that financial concerns mandate that it be pushed aside.

There is no justification for forcing faculty to involuntarily assume this significant health risk, especially when there is an easily available alternative that is superior from both a public health and didactic perspective (i.e., online-only classes).

Undermining this principle undermines the basis for virtually all of my work as an expert witness in environmental health litigation because the principle behind my testimony is that corporations should not involuntarily expose the public to substantial, foreseeable health risks, regardless of whether there are severe financial consequences for these companies. —Michael Siegel  See also

This conflict is taking place at Boston University—where public health expertise exists—between what we know to be the way to stay safe, and other interests.

A lesson to learn

This is a lesson for us in housing. We must look critically at the values and policies of all the stakeholders.

  • Why doesn’t the legislature address the known issues?

  • Why has the administration/Department of Public Health refused to carry out the legal mandate to collect and publish COVID data on elderly/disabled housing?

  • Why don’t all local housing authorities act to protect tenants?

  • Why do the private landlords of subsidized housing fail to act to protect tenants?

  • Why don’t all tenants take steps to protect themselves and their neighbors?

  • Why don’t the local health departments intervene when landlords or tenants ignore public health mandates?

Failure to address the challenge is not an option, there can be no excuses. We must find ways to change attitudes, values, and habits in our community life if we are to survive the pandemic. Our landlords and local housing authorities have options to help reduce the exposure of everyone in housing. We already know what needs to be done. It will require all of us to learn and adapt; it will cost time and money. Together we must, and together we can.

Help us survey housing to pinpoint where there is COVID, and where it has been kept out. Because none of the government agencies are doing this survey, we'll do it ourselves. Join the Little Red Hen Survey. Together we will protect our communities.