Experts call for local health board funds

Jun. 14—BOSTON — Local health agents were on the front lines of the state's yearlong battle against COVID-19 — testing residents, enforcing virus restrictions and setting up vaccination clinics.

Medical experts say the often underfunded and understaffed boards of health need more resources to ensure they're ready for the next pandemic.

Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School for Public Health and a former state public health commissioner, said the pandemic was a wake-up call to strengthen local health agencies that played a vital role in controlling the virus and protecting the public.

"These local departments have been overwhelmed and under-invested for too long," he said. "It's one of the reasons we've had such devastation."

Dr. Carole Allen, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, agrees that more funding is needed to strengthen local boards of health.

Allen, a former chairwoman of the Arlington Board of Health, said stronger local health departments will improve the state and federal response to future COVID-19 outbreaks as well as other viral infections, natural disasters and calamities.

"Health boards at the local level understand the needs of their own community, and that's especially true in minority and underserved communities," she said.

Allen said there is also a need for better communication and cooperation between local officials and federal and state agencies, which weren't always on the same page during the pandemic.

Health boards in Massachusetts had far-reaching powers even before the pandemic. Those were expanded under the public health emergency to include the power to close businesses, shut down roads and restrict access to public property.

Many boards of health were already understaffed and quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the myriad of COVID-19 health restrictions on businesses and individuals.

Some health agents were forced into the role of police officers, as they tried to balance civil liberties with the need to protect their communities against outbreaks.

Gov. Charlie Baker has acknowledged the importance of boards of health in battling the pandemic and diverted additional funding to buttress their shoestring operations.

In April, his administration created a $7.7 million grant program for local health boards to improve cross-jurisdictional coordination.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the funding will help expand cooperation among health agents who operate independently.

"Strong local health departments across the state will better prepare us for any future significant health care threats or pandemics," she said in a statement.

Koh, who served as assistant secretary for health during the Obama administration, said the federal and state government need more of a concerted effort to support local health systems.

"We desperately need to revitalize the public health system so we don't go through this again," he said.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at