Editor’s note: April 4-10 is National Public Health Week. This article highlights some public health workers in Chautauqua County.
When you get sick, you may go to the doctor’s office for medication and treatment to get better. When you’re injured, you may go to the hospital or urgent care to have your wound addressed. But what about those who work behind the scenes, helping keeping a community healthy and safe? That’s where public health comes in.
“We’re not just worried about one person who walks through the door, or one person who lives in one specific neighborhood. We have to think about everybody everywhere and how can we positively impact the health and wellness of all of those people, even though we know it’s going to take different measures in different places,” said Christine Schuyler, public health director and commissioner of Social Services.
Janelle Hartloff is a registered nurse who previously worked for Brooks Hospital but switched 14 years ago to become a public nurse. “I really enjoyed working with the community, working hands on with residents with people who needed our help,” she said.
Cathy Burgess previously worked for UPMC and today is the director of community health nursing. She started with the county in the family planning clinic in Dunkirk. “I just really had an interest in women’s health at the time,” she said.
Shelly Wells, a nurse and public health planner, said she enjoys helping the community at large. “I think the difference in being a nurse and treating people and public health is that you’re really looking at preventive measures. You’re looking at the things that prevent people from getting ill instead of treating them after they’re ill,” she said.
Breeanne Agett, an epidemiologist with the county, spends much of her time collecting and analyzing data. “The goal is to look at all the data to see what are the health problems in the community and then work on trying to identify what are the causes of these problems,” she said.
In Chautauqua County, studies show the chronic diseases tend to be caused by poor nutrition, lack of physical activities and smoking. “We work with several organizations throughout the community to try to identify what those problems are specifically, and then work together collaboratively to determine how we’re going to address them,” Agett said.
While a lot of the last two years public health workers have focused on COVID-19, they’ve had a number of health issues before this pandemic. Some of those include measles outbreaks, pertussis (whooping cough), H1N1 (swine flu), rabies, and more. According to Schuyler, there are more than 70 reportable human diseases in New York state that they watch for. “The local health department’s job has always been to investigate any of those diseases that are reported to us and to take measures to prevent the spread of that disease,” she said.
Public health goes beyond nursing as well. Natalie Whiteman, is the county’s emergency preparedness coordinator, She has been with the county’s Public Health Department for more than 20 years, starting with inspecting water treatment plants and helping with various water emergencies. During her time with the county, she also helped inspect homes for lead and lead-based paint, and saw problems throughout the county. “We saw lots of children in substandard housing that were affected (by lead), but we also saw many instances where it was children of the middle class or even upper middle class that assumed ‘we’re buying this really nice house in a really swanky neighborhood, therefore it’s got to be safe.’ But if it was built in the ’50s or ’60s, there’s a good chance it wasn’t safe,” she said.
Another issue that concerns Whiteman is the county’s aging infrastructure. “We’ve got wastewater treatment plants out there that have really outlived their lifespan. There’s pipes in the ground that are way past their lifespan that need to be addressed before we have a huge public health concern due to failing water system or a failing wastewater system,” she said.
The public health department also deals with food issues, such as e-coli outbreaks and potential for rabies.
Whiteman notes the county handles hundreds of calls annually for bites from dogs, cats and bats. “We trace down the animal, we trace down the owner and do prevention if necessary,” she said.
With so many issues, Schuyler calls public health “Switzerland” of medical care. “We’re doing policy, systems change and giving guidance to others out there in the community,” she said.