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Community looks to revive public health office

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Abby Wheeler, John Packham

Abby Wheeler, Elko County Transit Coordinator, and Dr. John Packham, associate dean for the Office of Statewide Initiatives for UNR's School of Medicine, discuss a CDC grant opportunity to research starting a public health department in Elko on Dec. 8 at Dalling Hall.

ELKO – Sixteen years after Elko County’s public health office closed its doors, locals are seeking to revive it.

A $500,000 CDC Workforce Grant could be the key to exploring how to establish an Elko County health department or district within the next 18 months. Elko County Commissioners will review the grant on Wednesday.

If approved, it would fund two employees to research the steps and logistics of forming a public health office and use the information to plan its implementation.

Elko County Transit Coordinator Abby Wheeler assisted the County with its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. She explained that it would take “baby steps” to relaunch the public health office, beginning with Elko County Commissions green-lighting a CDC grant to start the ball rolling.

“The CDC Workforce Grant would allow us staffing which would be dedicated to researching the next steps for public health,” she said. “This would not be public health right out of the chute. It would be the baby steps into figuring out how we’re going to get and fund public health. How big it would be, what services would be included and how we would partner with our existing agencies.”

Dr. John Packham, associate dean of the Office of Statewide Initiatives, speaks about the goals of a CDC Workforce Grant that could lead Elko County closer to reforming a public health department in Dalling Hall on Dec. 11, 2021.

Dr. John Packham, associate dean in the Office of Statewide Initiatives for the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine, said he hoped a conversation would start about bringing public health services due to the grant, particularly for rural Nevada.

“Urban areas of the state have well-established health departments with a long history,” Packham said. “Most public health services provided in rural communities, such as Elko, are provided out of Carson City. The idea is to generate a discussion of bringing those public health services localities and making public health local.”

The goal of a workshop on Dec. 8, including presentations from Wheeler and Packham, was intended to explain the opportunity and scope of public health, along with “what exactly public health is,” said Terri Clark, director of growth and outreach at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding around what public health is. In fact, some people believe we have a public health department already,” Clark said.

If the department is formed, it would allow the County to track its own data for disease reporting and investigating; develop procedures, plans, cost models and response efforts based on local needs; and focus on primary prevention, Wheeler said.

Dr. David Hogle, who has practiced medicine in Elko for 41 years, attended the workshop to learn more about the project “and the opportunity for Elko.”

“We used to have a community public health nurse,” Hogle said. “It was a loss to the community because she provided care for kids, pregnant women, immunizations, things that otherwise aren’t being done. We can restore that.”

In 2005, state public health offices were absorbed by local hospitals, eliminating the position of Elko County’s public health nurse.

At the time, the Elko Family Medical and Dental Center, which Nevada Health Centers oversaw, entered into a financial arrangement to provide local health services instead of the state health department.

Elko County started paying for costs incurred for indigent care and environmental health services in 2011. That lead to a “cost-neutral program for the state, but increased the fiscal burden on the county,” according to information provided by the County.

Wheeler explained tax revenues are already in place. If the County reforms the health district, the state will continue its partnership with the County. It would “retain supreme authority on certain matters, which is based in state law, but we would have greater authority over our own local health decisions.”

Carrie Power, the former owner of Morning Star Health Center, attended the workshop. She was a public health nurse for 10 years and said she supports the current efforts to resume a public health district.

“I think we need a public health department,” she said. “You never know what disease might be coming, and that is your local agency to deal with infectious disease. That is my biggest concern is some new disease or pandemic.”

Dr. Fred Fricke was also in support of establishing a public health department, considering how rural counties throughout northern Nevada “have doctors scattered all over the place,” he said. “We [need to] pool our assets, and we should function together.”

If a public health office had been in Elko County during the pandemic, Power said, “you would not be calling a number in Carson City with your question, and it’s already overwhelmed, and nobody answers. You could call the local one or drive down and ask them a question.”

“We would have supplies, the latest information available,” Power added.

From her experience helping the County through the pandemic, Wheeler said all that is missing is “the control tower, which is the county health department,” because local partners are in place.

She said it was also apparent from the health crisis that Elko “must be their own cavalry.”

“We cannot expect the state to come to our rescue,” Wheeler said. “They are simply too far away.”

Packham said the pandemic brought attention to the differences of a community with and without a health department.

“I think the stars are aligning for communities like Elko, Churchill, White Pine and others that are seriously exploring it,” he said.

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Staff writer for the Elko Daily Free Press

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