In Our View: Protecting Public Health

Wiesman's appointment helps showcase great work of county department

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Imagine your job description includes: help prevent diseases in your community; promote healthier choices among your fellow residents; protect local food, water and air; prepare for health emergencies.No small task, right?

Now imagine taking on those tasks while having your budget cut by about one-third in less than a decade, and by having the number of workers in your agency reduced by about 47 percent.

Those factors lead to two inescapable conclusions: (1) The accomplishments of the Clark County Public Health Department under the direction of John Wiesman in the past nine years are amazing. (2) Wiesman's appointment by Gov. Jay Inslee to become Washington Secretary of Health is both eminently justified and well-deserved.

Congratulations to Wiesman for a job well done and for ancillary achievements, not the least of which has been serving as president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Toss in the doctor of public health degree that he received three months ago at the University of North Carolina, and it's shaping up as a busy time in the life of the 51-year-old public health expert.

This story is about more than just Wiesman, however, and because he is such a people person, we know Wiesman agrees with our declaration: The work of the entire public health department deserves community-wide praise, especially in view of the budget difficulties described above.

Although police officers and firefighters understandably draw much of the attention for protecting public safety, the health department also falls into that same realm. These men and women are among the first responders when a disease breaks out. They make quick, crucial decisions to contain outbreaks. They inspect restaurants to keep our dining experiences from making us sick. They monitor and promote vaccines and immunization programs that often focus on our children. They make sure septic systems operate properly and don't further pollute water sources. It's a 24/7 responsibility, one that involves the entire population.

But there also are defined segments that receive immeasurable help: people without health insurance; low-income, first-time mothers; parenting teens; schools and numerous other groups.

Under Wiesman's direction, the innovative and diligent workers in public health have strengthened partnerships in ways that help overcome many of the budget woes. They're working with local health insurance companies, pharmacies, churches, neighborhood associations, convenience stores and libraries to increase access to health care and promote public awareness.

While much of this work occurs unaccompanied by large headlines, other reputable sources have noticed what's happening here. The county health department's tuberculosis staff received a state award for innovation in 2012. That same year, the local Emergency Community Notification System (to investigate infectious disease outbreaks more quickly and efficiently) was nationally recognized.

The department's Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan won a national award in 2011, largely because it emphasized projects in low-income neighborhoods and improved access to grocery stores.

So, while the spotlight falls on Wiesman this week, and he moves to Olympia with our best wishes, it's abundantly clear that he leaves the county with a public health department that works wonders, using creativity and hard work to conquer funding and staffing challenges.