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AIDS to substance-use disorders. None of those have faded into
irrelevance, of course. “All those things we saw as really challenging public- health issues are things we still work with today.”
But there were other shifts. For example, after 9/11, weaponized anthrax was a big issue, and on numerous occasions, Caulton-Harris helped investigate some suspicious white powder in Springfield. It was the first time her public-health focus shifted from behavior-related and community- based issues to external threats.
The other shift has been a
growing understanding of how social determinants like employment, education, environment, and housing conditions directly impact health.
“We were working in silos, trying
to help individuals make smart behavior changes, but public health
is population-based,” she said. “We need to think about public health
in the broadest sense and how it impacts populations. And social equity is the central piece of these social determinants of health — really looking at where a person works, plays, and lives.”
Meanwhile, the education aspect
of her job continues to be critical, particularly with the COVID-19 infection rate rising in the city and across the state.
“When we were doing well,
there were individuals in the city of Springfield and in Massachusetts who thought we were in a position where we could begin to take risks. And I think individuals did that. So we’re seeing a surge in the virus,” she said, noting that the previous week’s new case count in the city was 235, up from 107 the week before.
“COVID fatigue is absolutely real. I think each of us is tired. We have been battling this since late February, so I understand that individuals are tired,” she went on. “I have personally met residents who can’t go to funerals,
who had to cancel weddings, who can’t go to hospitals and hold the hands of their loved ones. It is just really heart- wrenching to understand what’s going on. We believe that health is physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional, and all the quadrants of our health have been compromised by this virus.”
But if Springfield could control the spread in the spring — which it did, remarkably well — it can do so now, she believes. But it will take a collective effort.
“This virus really jumps from person to person; it loves having a host, and we are the host. Unless we do things like face covering, washing our hands, social distancing, and staying home when we’re sick, then the virus will continue to replicate itself until we have a vaccine.”
Family Legacy
When Caulton-Harris talks about responsibility, she speaks from the heart, and from a family legacy stretching back from her father, who was a Springfield police lieutenant,
to her great-grandfather and great- great-grandfather, who served in the 10th Cavalry of the U.S. Army and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, respectively.
“They contributed to the person
I am,” she said. “We were raised
to understand we had a role in the community and needed to give back.”
She’s also quick to credit the impactful women who shaped her own career, including the African-American
nurses and nurse supervisor with whom she worked at her first job, at Neighborhood Health Center in Mason Square.
“To become a Woman of Impact
is really important because I was immersed in women who had an impact on my life,” she told BusinessWest.
“And they paid it forward by nurturing me, by mentoring me, and by making sure their behavior was something I would want to emulate.
“So, all these years later, to think about having an impact in my career, in my life, with other women is very, very gratifying,” she went on. “My journey has been completely dedicated to that social-justice movement that
I saw as very important when I was
a young woman at the University of Massachusetts. So I am really fortunate to sit here and feel as though I have lived that social-justice experience, rooted in science.”
She’s equally gratified when others follow in her footsteps.
“Three mayors allowed me to
make decisions and supported those decisions,” Caulton-Harris said. “I would like to see more women, particularly women of color, emerge in leadership positions where they are decision makers and they can also have an impact on our residents, our state, and our nation.” u
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]
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