Island County Public Health scrambles to fill key positions
— Created January 13, 2021 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
The Island County Board of Health has approved a temporary health officer. Dr. Scott Lindquist – on loan from the State Department of Health – will fill the role vacated at the end of the year by Dr. Joel McCullough.
Lindquist will serve as the county’s health officer for two weeks only, but according to the county’s Health Services Director, there should be no decrease in necessary services.
“Dr. Lindquist is willing to dedicated whatever level of service this board needs,” Keith Higman told board members at a special session last week. “He is willing to travel to Coupeville, attend the board of health meeting and will be available by phone for clinical questions. I don’t think we’ll be diminished in any health officer services.”
Higman told board members he expects to be able to hire a permanent health officer soon, perhaps by partnering with other nearby health jurisdictions. That is likely to be discussed at the next regular Board of Health meeting Jan. 19.
The state’s DOH has also taken over contact tracing responsibilities for Island County Public Health so new personnel can be trained on the state’s software.
Meanwhile, the public health department is also looking to replace other positions, after three of its public health nurses resigned. A couple of those leaving, as well as Dr. McCullough, cited concerns over communication within the public health department as well as having to deal with a heavy workload.
Whidbey Weekly reached out to Higman but did not get a response before press time. Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair was the only one to respond to questions related to the status of the health department, and said she remains confident the department is doing its best during unprecedented times.
“In fall, when concerns about nursing staff were shared with the Board, we approved two new nursing positions and began the hiring,” St. Clair said. “Unfortunately, I believe the frustration and the stress were such that it was not soon enough. We have also immediately posted and have begun interviewing staff. We also have discussed welcoming back those willing to resume regular public health nursing responsibilities and not COVID work.”
St. Clair said they are working to improve communication and support to public health staff. She said overall, the county has done well over the past year, quickly mobilizing an emergency management team, setting up weekly calls with schools, healthcare providers and first responders, creating a messaging campaign to encourage the community to follow public health guidelines, and more.
“We were an early county to do a mass testing event across both islands to establish the latency rate of the disease in our community and because of that and other work, able to move into Phase 3 and were the only Phase 3 county in our region,” she said. “Our numbers stayed low through summer and early fall.
“In November, we saw a surge that was more intense than I anticipated and it had consequences,” St. Clair continued. “We needed to be more proactive in our support to all staff, including human services, public health and all frontline workers.”
St. Clair said while the intensity and the duration of the COVID crisis was unexpected, commissioners and public health staff are constantly learning.
“We stay forward-focused as we move optimistically into the vaccination stage,” she said. “I would note here that we were also one of the first counties to deliver vaccinations to the public through the partnership with WhidbeyHealth and we are reaching out to our healthcare partners that serve North Whidbey and Camano to offer support to regional partners.”
For information on Island County’s response to the pandemic as well as the latest case numbers, visit islandcountywa.gov.
“We will continue to learn what we can do better,” St. Clair said. “We will continue to partner with our community for success. This pandemic is bigger than any one entity and I believe our past success and future success will be due to the partnerships with the public, our community organizations and Island County Public Health, Human Services and Emergency Management. We are all in this together.”