It wasn’t long after the first COVID-19 cases reached the U.S. that New York State — and its public health workforce — found itself in one of the hardest-hit epicenters of the pandemic. 

“I don’t want to characterize what other states experienced, but I think we may have experienced an exaggerated version of the pandemic,” said Thomas Reizes, MPH, the workforce development and distance learning coordinator at the New York State Department of Health’s (NYSDOH) Office of Public Health Practice. “Boy…it was a lot.” 

From leadership turnover to staff reassignments and a stark shift toward pandemic-related tasks, Reizes said that “the typical day-to-day work of a functioning health department was somewhat deprioritized.” 

This made completing the 2021 Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS) more challenging than in years past, Reizes said. “Even by the fall of 2021, a lot of the folks were still eating, sleeping, drinking, and breathing COVID. Many did not have the bandwidth to participate in a voluntary survey.” 

But the NYSDOH pulled it off.  

I can’t underscore enough the ongoing value of having [PH WINS as] a no-cost-to-the-department method for implementing a satisfaction and training needs assessment.

Thomas Reizes, New York State Department of Health

While response rates were lower than in years past, Reizes and colleagues in the Office of Public Health Practice achieved the required rate for the survey to ensure that responses were representative of the diverse and sweeping department. Reizes, who has worked in the Office of Public Health Practice for more than two decades, knew from participating in PH WINS 2014 and 2017 how vital those data and insights would be, not only for securing reaccreditation with the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB), but also for identifying gaps in the public health workforce’s competencies, then building training opportunities to fill them.  

“I can’t underscore enough the ongoing value of having a ‘no-cost-to-the-department’ method for implementing a satisfaction and training needs assessment,” Reizes said. “This increases in value and importance for accredited health departments as PHAB continues to expand their requirements to include satisfaction and training needs assessment, as well as impact and outcome reporting based on decisions driven by those assessments.” 

In other words, to secure reaccreditation, a plan to collect data on the types of questions posed by PH WINS is a must. And for a broad department whose comparatively limited resources often end up funneled into immediate or emergency initiatives — say, a pandemic — the coordination and analysis from the de Beaumont Foundation and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) is invaluable.  

“Workforce development tends to be the first to get defunded and the last to get funded,” Reizes said. “Public health does not get large, broad-based federal workforce development dollars.” 

Beyond accreditation 

In his role spearheading learning opportunities for a thousands-strong state public health department, Reizes relies on assessments like PH WINS to build the courses available on the public-health-focused learning management system, and to ensure the diverse offices within the department have access to the trainings most relevant to their functions. This encompasses everything from environmental health plan-specific trainings for state sanitarians to specialized HIPAA trainings for employees within the NYSDOH AIDS Institute. It also includes overarching emergency preparedness planning for the entire department.  

Because the NYSDOH’s public health workforce is organized into an extensive and complex series of what Reizes calls “offices within offices” that don’t necessarily match those of other health departments, Reizes has worked with de Beaumont and ASTHO to tailor the PH WINS analyses to the department’s needs. “de Beaumont and ASTHO were kind enough to work with me beginning in 2014 to get data based on the true centers and divisions within the New York State Department of Health,” Reizes said. “And it was really helpful because it enabled me to not only have our state-level executive summary, but to produce executive summaries for the major centers within our Office of Public Health.” These included summaries for the department’s Center for Community Health, Center for Environmental Health, AIDS Institute, and Office of Health Emergency Preparedness, among others. When the time came to make decisions for the department that year, these center-specific summaries gave the DOH valuable data to inform planning and catalyze department-level conversations. 

Reizes and his colleagues in the Office of Public Health Practice are parsing the PH WINS data and incorporating it into emerging and future public health initiatives. One such initiative is the first-in-the-nation New York State Public Health Corps, through which the department is working with community partners to train up to 1,000 fellows. These fellows work full-time with communities across the state for a minimum of one year in various capacities depending on their skill sets, education level, and interests. So far, the new Public Health Corps, which Reizes spearheaded and helped launch during the summer of 2021, has focused primarily on supporting COVID responses. The fellows have assisted local health departments with COVID-19 vaccinations and epidemiology and data reporting, and other crucial pandemic response activities.  

As a program with educational opportunities beyond the on-the-ground work itself — including a course completion and certificate from Cornell University and a mentorship component, among other elements — building the Public Health Corps required looking beyond immediate COVID priorities to identify educational gaps. “When we were planning the educational series components of the Public Health Corps, we again turned to PH WINS to look at the training needs,” Reizes said, noting that he and his team homed in on the core competencies identified for the training element of the Public Health Corps through the PH WINS needs assessment questions.  

According to Reizes, in planning the educational series for the Public Health Corps, tapping into the PH WINS data was especially helpful since the department didn’t have its own workforce training survey to reference. “PH WINS was our training needs assessment for our workforce development plan,” he said. “I didn’t have any funding to do a department-wide training needs assessment, so the PH WINS thumbprint was always already there.”  

For a department as extensive as NYSDOH, it’s difficult for Reizes to zero in on just one area where PH WINS data have spotlighted workforce training needs that he and his team may not have otherwise identified. But Reizes can say with confidence that the data collected through PH WINS have only grown in value through the pandemic — a trend he expects to continue in the years ahead. 

“There is more of a need to understand the demographics of our workforce and how it compares to the demographics of our state and the citizens we serve,” he said. “Following the pandemic, it is particularly valuable to understand the workforce’s interests and needs so that we can better address issues of equity, work-life balance, and wellness, in addition to the simple fact that public health practice has been redefined, if not transformed, by our collective experience responding to the pandemic.”  

Putting PH WINS in action 

PH WINS can be a valuable source of information to strengthen your health department and improve the employee experience. Thomas Reizes describes the benefits to PH WINS as follows: 

  • Findings can be used to secure reaccreditation. 
  • PH WINS provides evidence to prioritize training opportunities to fill gaps in competencies.  
  • PH WINS does not cost the department money. 
  • Insights can be incorporated into all types of public health initiatives, such as educational opportunities for current or incoming staff.  

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