Dr. Brooke Cunningham was named the new commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health in January, replacing Jan Malcolm. Previously, Cunningham served as Assistant Commissioner for Healthy Equity.
All Things Considered spoke with Cunningham about his vision for the department emerging from a public health emergency.
Listen to the full interview using the audio player above or read a transcript below. Both have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What is our status on COVID-19? And what’s left to do when it comes to that?
Nationally, we are moving to a new approach. As you know, our state sites have closed in this new approach. And we come back in many ways to the state of health care in 2019. But I think we’re increasingly aware of the challenges that the pandemic has presented for the state and for the people of Minnesota in terms of access to care, inequalities in health and financing. of public health. And so these are challenges that remain.
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Are there specific initiatives to ensure we are prepared for the next public health emergency or pandemic?
I think we are well prepared. We’re better than 2019, but let’s face it, part of the challenge is that public health has always been underfunded. Nationally, when you look at the amount of dollars spent on public health, that’s only about 5% of our budgets and that’s true for Minnesota.
And so part of what helped us was injecting money from the federal government, asking for support from the state legislature, and then having candid conversations with partners to make sure we can provide , again, public health services at a high level of quality. and access to everyone around the state.
How will you work towards health equity in your role?
We want to make sure that community organizations contribute to the work of MDH, they are the closest to the solutions of the organization. And I want to raise a few points. One, the Office of American Indian Health, that went through our COVID grants, we were able to establish that office and really give grants to tribes to invest in their own public health systems.
We also have an office of African American health in the budget that we hope will be funded by the legislature, which will help address health inequities. These groups are the most impacted… so in four years I hope to see these offices thrive and prosper in a way that again increases our impact as an agency, increases our trust in communities and increases our capacity to be a resource. And even leaves room for the experiences of young people as we think about the future of the public health workforce.
I would also say that MDH is nationally recognized as a leader in public health and data. I really like investing in our data analytics to make sure we’re at the forefront of that analytics and to make sure we’re delivering actionable data to partners. I think that’s extremely important.
We’ve seen that with COVID and our dashboards, they’re award-winning and not just with partners, but with the public to kind of understand what’s going on right now right now.
Why did you choose Jessica Hancock-Allen as your new infectious disease manager?
She definitely has a background in public health. She has a clinical background and in addition to knowledge, she has the spirit and energy to move us forward into the future. We have to focus, as I said, on the future of our public health analyses. I trust that she will be a strong partner with me to achieve this.
How do you build trust in this politicized climate?
I look forward to the time in June when I can start moving around the state to connect with Minnesotans so they have a sense of me and I learn and care. This is one of the lessons of Commissioner Malcolm, I have seen it appear in spaces, which imposes humility. And I, too, want to move in a way that demonstrates that I have to serve Minnesotans, and listen and learn and be responsive.
What are the top two things on your agenda that the Minnesota Department of Health will focus on?
People equate public health with COVID, perhaps by extension with infectious diseases, but there are other fundamental areas and public health, including chronic disease and injury prevention, environment, public health, maternal, child and family health.
We focus on the full spectrum of public health services and ensure we have a strong public health system with the resources and relationships to work together.
An agency that prioritizes fairness is an agency that is, well, right. Our staff have been through a lot in the three years of the pandemic, there is some organizational healing that we are seeing and so that is key.