County Health Staffers Detail Public Protection Efforts

The work of the county’s Public Health Division — including its role in preventing disease outbreaks — was highlighted at the April 12 Board of Supervisors meeting.

In a presentation that capped National Public Health Week, Susan Buckley, the county’s public health director, was joined by several county health staffers who she said do their work “without much fanfare until a disease event happens or there is increased risk of disease spread.”

Eric Gordon, a county public health nurse for the county’s Communicable Disease Surveillance and Control program, told supervisors that local staffers work to track and limit the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C, sexually-transmitted diseases and E. coli bacterial infection but are also “keeping our eyes open for any emerging threats” such as the Ebola virus.

County residents went to West Africa to assist with dealing with the outbreak there, Gordon said, and underwent 21-day daily monitoring programs when they returned home. None were found to have been infected, he continued.

Another health threat is the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which Gordon said is spread by two species of mosquito that haven’t been seen in Humboldt County. But the virus is one of several that are becoming prevalent as climate change intensifies, he continued.

“These mosquitoes live in a tropical and sub-tropical region and as the world gets warmer, these regions are starting to expand,” Gordon said, adding that the Zika-prone mosquito species have been seen “in a number of California counties.”

He also said that distantly-based diseases can hit home because exposure to them is “only a plane ride or two away.”

Humboldt residents who have travelled to Mexico or areas south of it have been tested for Zika and Gordon said it and Ebola “highlight the importance of having a communicable disease program just so that we’re always looking for and prepared for any emerging threats that might be coming.”

Consumer protection is a related public health responsibility and Amanda Ruddy of the county’s Environmental Health Division highlighted the importance of inspecting restaurants, piercing and tattoo parlors, public pools and other public facilities.

She gave a recent example of how an inspection warded off a potential public health hazard, saying she received several phone calls from residents who’d gotten sick after eating at a local restaurant.

Consumer Protection staff worked with communicable disease staff and inspected the restaurant, successfully identifying the cause of the disease spread. “It turns out that management and an employee came back a bit too early from being ill and that allowed the disease to proliferate in the facility,” Ruddy said.

The restaurant’s management voluntarily closed it, cleaned it, re-trained employees on disease-prevention protocols and modified ill employee procedures. “All in all, that was a huge success — we were able to stop the potential outbreak that could have been coming and to get the facility back in line, with their cooperation,” Ruddy told supervisors.

In another instance, an inspection revealed that a local fast food franchise’s automated burger cooker was heating hamburgers four degrees below a safety threshold, she said.

Ruddy seconded Gordon’s comments on climate change and said the geographic range of viruses is expanding and “we need to be aware of trending diseases.”

Thirteen programs are administrated under Humboldt’s Healthy Communities Division and Dana Murguia, its senior program manager, said preventing nicotine addiction is an important step in improving community health.

Dr. Jay McCubbrey, a health education specialist for Tobacco-Free Humboldt, said smoking rates in California have declined from about 25 percent in the early 1990s to about 11 percent today.

He described some of the county’s recent strides in establishing smoke-free zones, including Humboldt State University’s designation as a “smoke-free campus” and Arcata’s smoke-free policies and ordinances.

McCubbrey said Tobacco-Free Humboldt is also working with anti-smoking advocates to “develop policies” in unincorporated county areas, including Southern Humboldt.

National Public Health Week was built around the theme of improving America’s health care to the point where it will be the “healthiest nation” by 2030.

But Buckley told supervisors that a lot of work will have to be done to get there. She said that U.S. life expectancy ranks at number 34 among other industrialized nations “despite big investments in health care,” and she added, “We can do better.”