LANSING — More than a third of Michigan’s top county health officers resigned in the past year, many as the result of dealing with the pressures of the pandemic.
Norm Hess, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, said as information on COVID-19 changed daily, public health officers took the blame for a lot of the inconsistencies and experienced burnout.
“There were many times where no matter what decision they made, half of their community would be supportive and the other half would be ready to break bottles over their head,” Hess said.
Fifteen of Michigan’s 42 local public health officers left within the past year, he said.
Public health officers assess the needs of the community and implement policies based on those assessments.
Burnout and stress have created a need to fill public health positions.
Many people in local public health are retiring to switch career paths or for political reasons, and those positions need to be filled pretty quickly, said Mary Kushion, the internship coordinator for the master’s program in public health accreditation at Central Michigan University
“We had a number of local health department directors that either had to resign because their county commissioners or their board of health did not support their decision related to COVID,” she said.
Still, some of the state’s universities report a surge of student interest in the field.
Before the pandemic, there were 79 students enrolled in the Master of Public Health program at Michigan State University in the fall semester 2019, according to enrollment trends at MSU. By the summer semester of 2021, 98 students had enrolled.
“I think many became interested in what was going on around them,” said Wayne McCullough, the director of that school’s master’s in public health program. “They saw that some individuals were dying at disproportionate rates and because of race and gender.”
Working in public health is not always the first choice of students in graduate programs, Hess said.
“A lot of people who get master’s in public health degrees dream of going and working for Eli Lilly or MedImmune where you can make a lot of money, but no one thinks that they want to grow up and work in local public health,” Hess said.
The national hourly wage for people with a master’s in public health is $53.56 and $111,410 annually, according to Nursing Process, a website that provides nurses with educational and employment information.
But Michigan lags behind: people with a master’s in public health make $47.24 hourly and $98,250 yearly. The Nursing Process ranked Michigan 43 out of 50 for average salary by state.
“I really hope to break into the policy sector at the local level as well as the state and federal level,” said Katelyn Massaria, a student in the master’s of public health program at Michigan State. Her goal is to advise Congress on public health policy.
Twelve universities in Michigan offer a master’s in public health degree: Michigan State, University of Michigan, Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, Saginaw Valley State University, Andrews University, Grand Valley State University, Ferris State University, Madonna University and Oakland University.
There has also been an increase in enrollment in the master’s program of public health at Central Michigan, Kushion said.
“Our previous health officer retired right in the middle of the pandemic,” said Andrew Cox, the health officer for Macomb County Health Department. Cox has been in the position since January 2021.
Although his agency hasn’t seen a huge decrease in staffing, it has had challenges recruiting new graduates.
It is working with Oakland University to offer more internship opportunities.
Competition for quality applicants is fierce, Cox said.
“Several health systems are increasing wages, which means we have to get more creative with our offers and how we attract those individuals,” he said.