NEHA November 2021 Journal of Environmental Health

32 Volume 84 • Number 4 A D VANC EME N T O F T H E PRACTICE T hroughout the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental health profession- als have worked tirelessly to protect the health and well-being of their commu- nities. A COVID-19 environmental health workforce needs assessment conducted by the National Environmental Health Associa- tion (NEHA, 2020) in July and August 2020 found that all sectors of the workforce—lo- cal, state, federal, tribal, and territorial health departments as well as the private sector— were actively involved in the COVID-19 re- sponse. According to the report, environmen- tal health department staff took on numerous responsibilities outside their typical scope of work, including contact tracing, emergency communications, logistics, infection preven- tion roles, and administrative duties. Many employees, however, reported a lack of ad- equate guidance, training, supplies, and staff to fulfill these responsibilities and faced dif- ficulties managing their workload as a result. For example, 13% of assessment respondents said that their departments had paused con- ducting regular inspections. Workers also cit- ed problems working from home and a lack of work–life balance as additional challenges. They also reported feeling extremely stressed, overworked, and burnt out (NEHA, 2020). Nevertheless, environmental health profes- sionals in local health departments and envi- ronmental health programs across the nation quickly adapted to these unprecedented cir- cumstances. Many came up with innovative approaches or entirely new approaches for addressing challenges impacting environ- mental health services delivery as well as helping support effective response and recov- ery efforts. NEHA, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), sought to recognize some of the innovative programs, activities, or strategies that were developed by state, tribal, local, and territo- rial health departments to deliver essential environmental health services during the pandemic. This partnership led to the devel- opment of the NEHA Environmental Health Innovation Awards that served to recognize and award environmental health programs with both monetary awards and workforce development resources. Four different levels of awards were given: Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Honorable Mention. Innovation award submissions were solic- ited for approximately one month starting the second week of April 2021. The submissions received were related to a variety of different environmental health services such as imple- menting virtual facility inspection programs, creating safe business reopening procedures, and developing a novel testing method for COVID-19 in wastewater, to name a few. Submissions were evaluated based on how well their innovation addressed health equity, enhanced workforce capacity, reached new populations, and employed cross-sector part- nerships with other agencies and organiza- tions, among other criteria. Ultimately, one Gold, two Silver, three Bronze, and five Hon- orable Mention Award winners were selected. During Part 3 of the NEHA 2021 Annual Educational Conference & Exhibition Three- Part Virtual Series on July 15, 2021, Dr. Patrick Breysse, director of CDC’s NCEH and ATSDR, hosted a panel discussion featuring three of the Innovation Award winners. “Even amidst the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic, environmental health professionals across the nation have found innovative and creative methods to ensure essential environmental health functions continue,” Breysse stated during his opening remarks. “The purpose of these awards is to both celebrate the success of these resilient environmental health heroes, as well as to share their innovations with the broader public health community.” Gold Award Winner Louisiana Department of Health: Virtual Asthma Home Visit Program In January 2020, the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) began to develop the Bring- ing Respiratory Health Equity for Asth- matics Through Healthier Environments (BREATHE) initiative to provide asthma services and resources to patients (Figure 1). During the COVID-19 pandemic, LDH conducted virtual home visits for asthmatics and partnered with COVID-19 contact trac- ers to receive referrals of COVID-19 patients affected by asthma. Although BREATHE launched during a period of uncertainty and shifting priorities, Dr. Arundhati Bakshi, program monitor for the environmental epidemiology and toxicol- ogy section at LDH, felt that the pandemic highlighted existing health disparities and emphasized the need for an asthma program. “Asthma is a condition that often affects Afri- can Americans, low-income populations, and people who do not have access to healthy housing,” Bakshi said. “COVID-19 shone a spotlight on the fact that there are all these Gina Bare, RN Alyssa Wooden, MHS Jesse C. Bliss, MPH David T. Dyjack, DrPH, CIH National Environmental Health Association Environmental Health Innovations During the COVID-19 Pandemic  F E AT U R E S T O RY