At the Opening General Session of APHA’s 2023 Annual Meeting and Expo, Rachel Levine encouraged a philosophical shift in public health — one that leads to “people and places thriving.”

Levine, U.S. assistant secretary for health with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was appointed to her position by President Joseph Biden in 2021 and is the first openly transgender official to be confirmed by the Senate, as well as the highest-ranking openly transgender official in U.S. history.

Rachel Levine at the 2023 APHA Opening General SessionIn her keynote address, Levine explained a federal initiative from HHS aimed at maximizing the impact of existing federal resources and authorities to improve health metrics equitably. Officially named the “Federal Plan for Equitable Long-Term Recovery and Resilience,” Levine referred to the program in a more colloquial manner, calling it simply “People and Places Thriving.”

According to Levine, the plan focuses on long-term health and resilience and is based on a framework of “vital conditions for well-being and justice.” These conditions include housing, learning, civic participation, a healthy environment, transportation, safety, meaningful work and economic stability.

Levine said the current approach to public health will need to undergo a major shift and include non-health professionals in the broader conversation. She said more than 35 agencies and governmental departments are involved in the initiative, including representation from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Labor.

“The ‘People and Places Thriving’ initiative gives me great hope. We need each other, we are connected to each other, and we must build these connections to improve health and well-being,” she said.

The Opening General Session also featured the awarding of the prestigious Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Foundation’s Fries Prize for Improving Health. There were two winners, biochemist Katalin Karikó, co-inventor of the modified mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines, and renowned disease detective Anne Schuchat, MD, who has served for decades on the front lines of outbreak response.

Karikó, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work along with colleague Drew Weissman, was not in attendance but expressed her gratitude in a short video.

APHA President Chris Chanyasulkit announced the awarding of the Presidential Citation to singer, songwriter, actress and philanthropist Dolly Parton. Parton, who also accepted the award in absentia, was honored for her Imagination Library, her championing of LGBTQ+ rights and her donated funds that assisted with the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Chanyasulkit, whose presidential term ends with the conclusion of the 2023 Annual Meeting and Expo, shared her thoughts and experiences from her presidential year. She said while there are many challenges to public health, the community of APHA — particularly its student members — encourages her to press onward.

“Unfortunately, the news is often more terrifying than the fiction section of my personal library. But I’m not discouraged by this. I’m aggressively hopeful,” she said.

APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin discussed during the Opening Session how far APHA and the field of public health have come in more than 150 years.

“Our public health system needs repair and modernization,” Benjamin said. “Colleagues, we have work to do. With over 150 years of history as our guide and a commitment to equity and justice, APHA will be around for the next 150 years.” 

Photo courtesy EZ Event Photography.