The column I am writing today will differ a little from the theme of the past few months and will rather be a reflection of years past at the Washington County Health Department.
Thirteen years and nine months ago, I began a new position at the health department as health commissioner. Although my career has always been in public health, I had not had the experience of taking on the challenges of a county health department. As I began this new adventure, I was welcomed by five full-time, one part-time, and one contract employee. There was no nursing staff except for those nurses provided twice a week through Marietta Memorial Hospital for immunizations and a nurse to work with families in the Bureau for Children with Medical Handicaps or BCMH program contracted through Community Action. The only grant that existed was the Dental Sealant grant, a school-based program that provided for placement of sealants for children in Washington, Noble, and Monroe counties.
Quite a bit happened over the years and the health department and programs grew. Within a year, nursing staff was hired and clinics were expanded to include satellite sites at New Matamoras, Beverly, Churchtown, Layman, and Little Hocking. Nurses became available to answer questions and provide services during all hours of the operations. Immunization clinics were expanded, healthy happenings was developed to provide sports physicals for school-aged children, and infectious disease reporting and follow-up were expanded. Confidential HIV and Hepatitis C were added several years later and have provided these screening and counseling services that were previously lacking in the county. The staff grew to provide services to Washington County as programs were developed and expanded.
The first new grant that was added to the services of the department was that of Public Health Preparedness. Even before 9-11, it was noted that should an emergency of public health significance occur, most local public health departments were ill prepared to handle a response. The first step in this program was to hire a coordinator to work with counties in Ohio in assessing the needs and working toward developing response plans. This grant has survived through several state and federal administrations and is in its 12th year of funding. A regional coordinator hired by WCHD, Betty King, serves eleven counties in Southeast Ohio. A part-time preparedness planner, Angela Lowry, was recently hired to work on coordinating local plans and reaching out to community partners including nursing homes, schools, and businesses.
What started as a regional cardiovascular health grant with Meigs and Athens counties in 2001, has now grown into the current Healthy Communities program. Court Witschey was hired in 2003 and has worked hard with community partners to provide opportunities for residents of Washington County to choose in addressing improving their health. Last month, this column focused on one of these opportunities.
A commercial plumbing inspector was added in 2004 and the current inspector now serves Washington, Monroe and Noble counties providing local inspections to these counties and contractors no longer need to rely on inspections from the State. We hope that this local service can continue well into the future.
The addition of the dental clinic in late 2006 has also been a much needed service for the residents of Washington and surrounding counties. Although this clinic struggled initially, changes were made and the clinic now has experienced growth financially and in the number of patients it now serves.
As mentioned above, WCHD has been providing HIV and Hepatitis C testing and counseling. Beginning this month these services have been placed on temporary hiatus as Rae Shaffer, our infectious disease nurse is retiring. We will all miss Rae and wish her health and happiness in her retirement. It is hoped that HIV testing will be continued on a limited basis in January with staff from Portsmouth City Health Department providing services.
This also is my last column on the happenings and services of Washington County. It is with sadness that I am retiring as health commissioner of the Washington County Health Department. I will not however, be totally retired from public health and service in Washington County. I am currently scheduled to teach microbiology at Washington State Community College this spring and will look for additional opportunities to carry out the mission of public health to prevent, protect, and promote in this county and the state of Ohio. I wish to thank the community for welcoming me those 13 months ago and for working with me on many of the boards and programs we have developed that are too many to mention in this limited space. I will always remember my time as health commissioner as challenging but rewarding. We as a community have progressed together in developing needed programs for those we serve. It is my Christmas wish that the residents of Washington County will continue to receive the services that they deserve and that the Board of Health will quickly find the right person to move the health department forward to meet those needs. May you all have a very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.
Kathleen Meckstroth is former Washington County health commissioner.