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Documentary Explores Importance of Public Health in COVID and Beyond

RadicalMedia/Bloomberg Philanthropies/PBS

Thanks to advances in public health, most of us have safe food to eat and water to drink, and we no longer need to worry about children or grandchildren dying from diseases such as smallpox. Yet despite the profound impact public health has had, most public health officials work in obscurity — until a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic hits.

The Invisible Shield, a new documentary airing on PBS next week, celebrates the often unseen work of health departments and others in the public health sector and their critical role in keeping us safe from disease.

The four-part series, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and produced by RadicalMedia, was partially filmed in Washington state, which had the first documented case of COVID-19 in the U.S. The film “explores the hidden public health infrastructure in America that saves lives every day,” according to the series’ creators. It highlights achievements including increased life spans, as well as challenges such as underfunding and disinformation.

The documentary fits with AARP’s work to enhance quality of life as people age, said Marguerite Ro, state director for AARP Washington, who is spreading the word about the documentary. AARP worked closely with state and national public health officials during the pandemic to combat misinformation and keep older adults informed about the latest strains of the virus, vaccines and public health recommendations.

“At AARP, we want to create an environment that supports older adults having good health, so they can thrive,” said Ro, who has a doctorate in public health. “And Bloomberg, through the series, is really trying to show the value that public health has on our lives.”

Direct impact of public health

The Invisible Shield documentary features the work of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, which served as an early model for tracking active COVID-19 cases, promoting testing, working with local leaders and informing the community about the virus. The series also shows how the department, and others across the country, faced backlash from skeptics over their efforts to keep the virus from spreading.

“On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, this series presents a candid and pragmatic look at public health, including the challenges and issues of the past that are still relevant and how far we’ve come,” Sylvia Bugg, chief programming executive at PBS, said in a news release. “We hope that, as healing is taking place post-pandemic, our audiences will walk away with an even deeper awareness of the function of public health and have greater hope for the future.”

The documentary may especially resonate with older audiences because “many in this generation have seen the direct impact public health initiatives have had on their lives,” Kelly Henning, M.D., public health lead for Bloomberg Philanthropies, said in a statement to AARP. “Starting in childhood and leading up to the current day, they have witnessed incredible milestones, including the large increase in life expectancy between 1900 and 2000 and the eradication of smallpox in the 1970s.”

The Invisible Shield premieres Tuesday, March 26, with the first episode airing at 10 p.m. ET on PBS stations. Episode 2 airs Tuesday, April 9, at 10 p.m. ET. All four episodes will be available for streaming on and the PBS App starting March 26. Learn more about the docuseries, and keep up with AARP’s health coverage.

Natalie Missakian covers federal and state policy and writes AARP’s Fighting for You Every Day blog. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Haven Register and daily newspapers in Ohio. She has also written for the AARP Bulletin, the Hartford Business Journal and other publications.

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