Photo courtesy of Yakima Health District. Katharine McLaughlin Share Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Email Public health departments can be innovative incubators of new and effective solutions to complex community challenges. Through the Kresge Foundation’s Emerging Leaders in Public Health program, Yakima Health District in Washington had developed a roadmap to transition into that role and transform its department into a “Rural Health Innovation Catalyst.” With the plan firmly in place, the next step was secure training that would help the team move forward with its work. However, COVID-19 put a hard stop to those plans. Along with the rest of the country, Yakima Health District was forced to rapidly pivot to respond to the pandemic. With a large percentage of its population of approximately 250,000 serving as essential workers, Yakima County unfortunately became an early hot spot for COVID infections. Overnight, the Yakima Health District became a focal point for community-related issues across multiple sectors. “While the pandemic put a stop to implementing our strategy and our formal training to becoming a Rural Health Innovation Catalyst, the pandemic nonetheless forced our team to develop its leadership and innovation capacity on the spot,” Andre Fresco, executive director of Yakima Health District, said. “Public mandates required real-time solutions to complex problems that had never been addressed before. The COVID pandemic, while difficult, allowed our agency to progress rapidly in our ability to respond to community need.” Now, as the nation transitions out of the pandemic, the department remains in the spotlight. Yakima was able to use the pandemic as an opportunity to develop and implement models of community support and engagement centered on an equity platform that have been replicated statewide and nationally. “This strengthened Yakima Health District’s reputation as an organization that is action-oriented and purposeful in its mission to improve community health and well-being,” Lilian Bravo, director of public health partnership of Yakima County, said. However, while the department has expanded its capacity to respond to community needs, the pandemic nonetheless compounded many of the existing inequity issues that faced their community. In just the last six months, Yakima Health Department has had to respond to several environmental hazard emergencies, such as underground fires at landfills and contaminated groundwater due to nitrates and “forever chemicals” like PFAS. The county is also facing an increasingly fragmented health care system. Yakima County has long been considered highly vulnerable and ranked as one of the highest Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA) in Washington state. “In addition, the growing instability of the public health workforce post-COVID-19 the state has meant that the state Department of Health relies on our agency to stabilize important health safety net programs across the eastern portion of our state. This is on top of our staff’s normal workload,” Lilian Bravo said. But despite these challenges, Yakima Health District hasn’t lost sight of its original goal of transforming its local health department into an innovation catalyst. “Our staff have gained valuable on-the-job experience having gone through the pandemic. However, a high-quality comprehensive training program is necessary to establish a framework and structure that strengthens our staff’s skills to better serve our community in the rapidly changing public health system. Training our staff to be responsive to the needs of the community is the critical next step in implementing the work that we started five years ago through the ELPH program,” Fresco said.