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New Health Director Faces Greater Challenges

Monday, June 10, 2002 at 4:06 PM

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This month marks the 9-month anniversary of September 11th, and with recent warnings from Washington, the possibilites of another terrorist attack are fresh in the minds of area residents. And now, as the city considers candidates for the Director of Public Health, the position has more responsibility than ever with new concerns like bioterrorism. As 90.3 WCPN's Renita Jablonski reports, the city is busy making its disaster preparedness plans as they work to recruit a qualified director.

Renita Jablonski: Cleveland resident Larry Martin made the most of Sunday’s beautiful weather by taking his 5-year-old son to the East 55th Marina for an afternoon of fishing. An employee of a local pharmeceutical company that he did not want to name, Martin says he’s experienced several safety seminars and increased security measures at work since 9-11. But he says it’s when he looks at his son, that those worries hit home.

Larry Martin: This is his first time learning how to fish. We don’t know how many days he has left to keep fishing. They might throw something in the water and mess with the fish, you know. We eat the fish, we dead, you never know what’s going to happen.

RJ: Martin says he just wants a public reassurance that the city has its act together when it comes to being able to deal with the threat of bioterrorism.

LM: They should, they should tell us something because we don’t know nothing about what’s going on. Cause like, they might contaminate the water or something, you know. We don’t know nothing. We’re just out here in the dark until something happens, then we’ll know about it.

RJ: The city’s closing date on accepting applications for the director of health was just last month. In the meantime, Mayor Jane Campbell says she understands the concerns of residents like Larry Martin and says the administration has been working on a preliminary bioterrorism response plan. For instance, the city has equipped all of the local hospitals with special decontamination suits.

Jane Campbell: We have worked on decontamination procedures, that there is a communication system in place so that we know who is supposed to talk to who in order to make sure that the information is shared timely and appropriately.

RJ: And it’s not just hospitals that need to be on the same page. Campbell says she’s been engaged with the federal government to learn more about what financial resources are available for domestic preparedness and how Cleveland can access them. The mayor is also negotiating mutual aid agreements with cities throughout the northeast Ohio region.

JC: Now in the situation of Akron and some of the larger communities we also are going to need to make sure that we have a good strong mutual aid pact. Traditionally we only have mutual aid with the communities that are immediately contiguous because most of those have been thought of about a fire or something like that but if there was an epic disaster, we would need to make sure that we have mutual aid.

RJ: Addressing bioterrorism will be high up on the to-do list for the health director, but it’s not the only new challenge. The job will also include a faculty appointment as part of a new partnership with Case Western Reserve University. Scott Frank is the director of the Public Health Program at CWRU and on the city’s hiring committee. He says the collaboration will help give Cleveland’s health department a long overdue shot in the arm.

Scott Frank: As the health department, in all honesty, has atrophied a bit, become weaker in the city of Cleveland, one of the first things to go would be the kinds of things that allow you to look at the long range problems. Instead, the fires, the short range problems are what consumed the energy of those who are left in the health department. So to have somebody who can look at the big picture again and who can make long term plans to improve the longitudinal health of the city is exactly what’s needed and exactly what we hope to help the new health director to do.

RJ: Frank says the director will be able to get a good look at that bigger picture by using resources unique to a university setting. The idea is based on models being used more and more throughout the country - for example, New York state has developed a strong relationship in the past few years with Cornell University. More locally, Akron, and the state itself recently established similar pairings.

SF: We are epidemiologists, we are biostatisticians, we are public health practicioners and we have the skills and knowledge necessary to support the city in doing the analysis that needs to be done.

RJ: But will a health director who will be dealing with everything from environmental, behavioral, infectious diseases, and now bioterrorism really be able to balance those duties along with teaching a class? Scott Frank says he has no doubt - because he’s doing just that. Along with being the Director of the Master of Public Health program at Case, Frank is also health director for Shaker Heights.

SF: The emphasis that I’d really like to place is that that any concern that the health director would be distracted from the duties of their primary role in the city is an unrealistic worry because again what they will address when they’re at the university are the same issues in greater depth that are the priorities for the city.

RJ: And Mayor Campbell says it was the collaboration that helped attract an A-list group of applicants for the job.

JC: What we’ve seen is that too often the health department was an afterthought and by creating this partnership with Case’s medical school we are making it clear that for this administration health is a key investment in our citizens’ well-being.

RJ: The mayor says the pool of candidates has been narrowed down and she hopes to have someone in the seat by July. In Cleveland, Renita Jablonski, 90.3 WCPN News.

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