The Minnesota Department of Health's Kris Ehresmann has battled for decades to keep the state safe from measles, meningitis, influenza, tuberculosis, COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
While the Star Tribune Editorial Board laments the looming retirement of this hardworking public servant, Ehresmann merits Minnesotans' gratitude as she steps away early next month after 30-plus years at the state Health Department. More than a salute is in order, however.
Public health professionals have an essential though often overlooked role in the state's health and economic well-being. Policymakers should see this as a moment to consider measures to retain and attract talented staff.
Public health professionals are exhausted and depleted, just as the state's health care providers are. What can the state do to ensure the next Ehresmann joins the Department of Health and stays for a career?
Ehresmann, 59, had her retirement planned before COVID. She and her husband lost close family members some years ago and came to the conclusion that life is too short. Ehresmann said she loves her job, but knows there's more to life than work and wants time for new adventures.
She started as a student worker, and rose through the ranks to become the state's infectious disease director. Her leadership in jobs that were a steady diet of crisis management is especially praiseworthy.
The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, put a spotlight on her role and made her voice familiar to anyone who follows the news in Minnesota. Ehresmann has been a constant presence during news media calls and has been accessible for other questions throughout. She's embraced the communications duties vital to public health, and the state is better for it.
Key COVID metrics reflect well on Ehresmann's leadership. The state's overall mortality rate from the virus is the 14th lowest among U.S. states, according to the New York Times COVID tracker.
Minnesota also is at the forefront of nursing home residents who are fully vaccinated, according to federal statistics. In addition, it's among the best states when it comes to the lowest confirmed COVID cases per 1,000 nursing home residents, far outpacing its regional neighbors.
Ehresmann's dedication and approachable personal style set a high bar for her successors. Incentives and innovations are needed to attract future generations of talented public health workers who can build on her work.