U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark invited several Massachusetts public health directors to be virtual guests to Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, describing the key officials as unsung heroes who’ve taken leading roles in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic all while driving the day-to-day work of keeping towns and cities healthy.

“Our public health directors help our communities in so many ways, and especially during this pandemic they have just been heroes in making sure that our communities have the vaccines, the testing, the contact tracing that they need,” Clark, the assistant speaker of the House, told MassLive in an interview Tuesday morning.

She added that “they’ve also continued the work they’ve always done” — helping tackle the opioid crisis and those with substance use disorders and addressing domestic violence and environmental factors that impact health.

Inviting the group as virtual guests to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, which is set for 9 p.m. Tuesday, was “an opportunity to express my gratitude and the gratitude of everyone in the 5th District,” Clark said.

“Their mission is to have healthy communities and it has been a real challenge for them,” said Clark, who held a private Zoom session with 14 public health directors Tuesday.

She credited the Biden administration for ramping up free COVID-19 vaccinations across the country that have “allowed us to turn the corner on this pandemic.” She also touted congressional Democrats’ passage of the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion aid bill that saw boosts in funding go to states, nonprofits, health care centers, hospitals and American families — money Clark said was critical to combatting the pandemic and getting people back to work.

“We can fund it, but it’s our public health officials who got vaccines in people’s arms,” Clark said.

Because of direct federal funding to Watertown, seniors with a range of mobility and transportation challenges were able to get tested for the virus right in the city, Larry Ramdin, the city’s director of public health, said.

“In fact, when we looked at access to vaccination or testing sites, it would take someone close to 1 to 2 hours to get there by public transportation” without that funding, he added. “Additionally, we were able to provide increased allocations to food banks, hire local contact tracers and provide mental health services for those who needed them. We have to recognize the invaluable work that local public health officials do — and we are the boots on the ground. This funding helped us do our jobs and recognized the role we play.”

Clark said “the power of partnerships” between state and federal leaders, nonprofits, health professionals and public servants was a running theme of Tuesday’s virtual session. She said Congress and officials at every level hope to build on partnerships while striving to bolster recruitment and retention of public health officials at a time of severe burnout across health care and public service.

Derrick Neal, named Cambridge Health Department’s chief public health officer last year after a decade in health departments in Texas, said in a statement that he was grateful for the support from Clark and other partners. He cited “the synergy that exists in Massachusetts, specifically in Cambridge, in terms of everyone being on board wanting to eradicate this virus irrespective of what their ideology may be.”

Natasha Waden, Arlington’s public health director, thanked Clark for highlighting that “public health infrastructure really needs support.”

“We need to put public health at the forefront because we really are first responders,” she said. “We know our communities and we know where to go to get resources to people. This means building off the infrastructure and the support provided by the Biden administration and Congress. I hope to see these investments continue going forward.”

Biden heads into Tuesday’s address with a severe dip in approval rating compared to last year, and as he and Democrats hope to rebound and build momentum before the 2022 midterms after failing to pass Biden’s $1.7 trillion Build Back Better Act last year.

Clark said she hoped Biden explains to the “American people how he has met this time of historic challenge with historic progress” and how he’ll “continue to be that bridge builder who will give American families the chance for success.”

She described record low unemployment and nearly 7 million jobs created as “incredible achievements” under Biden’s watch, “but the president is well aware that the work is not done.”

Here is the full list of Clark’s virtual guests:

  • Arlington Public Health Director, Natasha Warden
  • Cambridge Public Health Director, Derrick Neal
  • Framingham Public Health Director, Alexandra DePalo
  • Lexington Public Health Director, Joanne Belanger
  • Lincoln Chair of the Board of Health, Dr. Frederick Mansfield
  • Medford Public Health Director, Maryanne O’Connor
  • Natick Public Health Director, Michael Boudreau
  • Revere Public Health Director, Lauren Buck
  • Sherborn Board of Health Administrator, Ellen Hartnett
  • Southborough Public Health Director, Heather Alker
  • Sudbury Public Health Director, William Murphy
  • Watertown Public Health Director, Larry Ramdin
  • Winthrop Public Health Director, Merideth Hurley
  • Winchester Public Health Director, Jennifer Murphy

Original story HERE