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KSMU is dedicated to broadcasting critically important information as our community experiences the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, you'll find our ongoing coverage.

Springfield-Greene County Health Department Director Reflects On Past Year As He Prepares To Leave

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It's been quite a year, and I'm sure that the prospect of leading during a pandemic was probably always in the back of your mind when you became director of the Springfield Greene County Health Department back in 2017. But did you ever think that day would actually come?

Oh, you know, it's a possibility. But, you know, you're seeing pictures of the Spanish flu, and they're grainy black and white photos. And so you don't think that it's probably going to happen during your tenure, but you always have to be prepared for those sorts of things, and so it’s been an interesting experience.

You’ve gotten that community through a pandemic that's killed more than 500000 people nationwide now and more than 400 in Greene County. And that has to be extremely stressful. And yet, you know, also rewarding at times because we've seen some success stories too.  What has the last year been like for you both professionally and personally?

Oh, it's been so, so challenging. But you're right at the same time, rewarding. And if you would have asked me before what I would have thought it would be like, I would have probably suspected it would be incredibly stressful.  But I've had a real sense of calm through this entire year. And, you know, I attribute that much to the team that we have here, the incredible training and role models that I've had and then just the incredible community collaboration and partnerships that we have.  We knew it would be tough, and we still have some path to travel. But I just could not be more pleased with how this community has reacted.

You got a lot of praise on social media, but there were also plenty of negative comments. How did you deal with being in the public eye?

Well, you are very much aware that you're not going to be able to keep everybody happy. In fact, what I've told staff many times is, if we navigate this correctly, at some point we will have stepped on everybody's toes in the community. And once you realize that and you realize that leadership in a crisis is not a popularity contest, you just have that mindset. And so we've tried to lead and use data and evidence to make every decision and use that to inform city council and county commission. I think if you do it that way, you can look yourself in the mirror at the end and know that you've done the right thing.

You pushed relentlessly, as did Springfield city leaders, for a statewide mask mandate, which was never issued how difficult was it for you to try to curb COVID-19 in the county with mask mandates only in certain cities?

Well, we know that mask mandates work. We know they work better than just recommendations. And when you really stop and think about the interactivity of our local economy, it really is a regional thing with a lot of commuters coming in here for daylight hours and then returning to their homes out of Springfield in the evening, it certainly does make disease control a much tougher equation than if we had that universally in a bigger geography. I still think that it was a mistake that was made, and I really wish we would have had a different path to our response.  But it is what it is, I suppose. 

What traits here in our community made our pandemic situation unique, good or bad or both?

Gosh, you know, it's an incredibly collaborative community.  And I'm so grateful for that because we've, you know, had the right people at the table to make some very, very difficult and challenging decisions. It's not like this in every community. So I'm incredibly grateful for that collaborative spirit where we can have tough conversations and arrive at the right conclusion together. I don't know how difficult it would have been if that characteristic were not in play here in Springfield.

How concerned are you about the COVID-19 variants that have emerged and have been detected here in Missouri?

It's a significant concern. It's not a matter of if, Michele, it's a matter of when they will take hold here. And I think that we have to continue to just assume that they're already here. The good news is that the same measures for control that we know and love will help protect us against the variant. So let's continue to do the things that we know will work as we continue to see vaccination rates climb. And we'll get out of this together if we're just disciplined for a little bit longer.

How are you feeling about where numbers are now and where we're at with vaccine distribution?

Yeah, we're getting there. It's so slow, and obviously that's very frustrating. I've been through this before with H1N1 vaccine. It just takes a little bit of time before supply catches up with demand. But now there's some there's some promising trends. I think just my department alone in the next two weeks will have distributed 6000 doses, so we're getting there. It's a little analogous to me to what testing was like in the beginning, if you'll recall how frustrating that was, that we didn't have testing bandwidth. And then finally, you get to a tipping point. We're headed toward that tipping point. So let’s keep the faith, and we'll get there together.

So many of the deaths, both locally and across the country, have been in nursing homes, a population that was already isolated from the public eye. Do you think that diminished how severe that tragic toll of the virus actually was? I mean, if it had been children and young adults, do you think the public would feel the impact of the death toll more than they do?

Oh, boy, that's a tough question, because every one of those lives matter. I do remember in H1N1 where the disease was impacting children more severely, and that certainly added a new layer of anxiety. But, you know, I don't want to diminish the 414 Green Countians that lost their lives to this pandemic. They still had lives to live, value to add. And I mean it when I say that we take every one of those deaths personally. It's going to be the third leading cause of death in this county over the last 12 months behind heart disease and cancer. So it's just a tragedy that that I really wish hadn't been as severe as it was.

Yeah. I mean, if you look back to, what, a year ago—wow, how things have changed.

Yeah, it's been an incredibly stressful year. But once again, I think that it's a year that that our community has responded well to, and we're making it through together, and I could not be more proud. It's been my distinct privilege to have been health director during this last year.

Is this something that we're going to have to deal with for the long haul? I mean, is it here like the flu? What do you know about that?

Yeah, I suspect it's going to be a background illness for a long time. And, you know, it could be one of those situations where periodically you're having to get a booster shot to account for, you know, the genetic drift that occurs with any virus. So just like you have to get a flu shot every year, I suspect that could be the case here. I also worry, and some of the research data that Missouri Hospital Association, some survey data that they've completed, show that there is greater vaccine hesitancy in the ring counties surrounding Springfield. So I do worry that you're going to end up with a disease that slowly transitions to become one that is more prevalent in rural communities as well as in lower socioeconomic status communities. Some of the early uptake we've seen in nursing home staff and in health care has shown that the lower the educational attainment, the less likely an individual is to accept the vaccine. So that's a big concern of mine. And we're getting to a stage now where the equitable distribution of the vaccine is going to be paramount, is going to be very important that we do not have barriers to vaccine and that we work hard to reach out to those communities that might be reluctant to consider vaccination.

How are you feeling as you prepare to leave a place where you've spent 25 years of your life?

It's bittersweet. You know, that's nearly half my lifetime. But you know, what I'm really going to miss the most is the people.  We've put together just an exceptional team of people that are passionate about what they do. They're very talented, and they're here for the right reasons. And beyond that, they're just good people. So when you leave a group like that, it's hard to know that I'm not going to be seeing them every day. But, you know, chapters of your life close, and new opportunities present. And I'm really excited about the work I'm going to be doing with the Missouri Foundation for Health. So I'm sure I'll still have interactions with these folks and with all the great people in this community.

Give us an overview of what you'll be doing for the Missouri Foundation for Health.

Well, you know, the Missouri Foundation for Health is heavily involved in improving systems and doing policy and systems evolution. And I think that they've noticed that there's some deficiencies in the inequities in the public health system in Missouri. We haven't really fully modernized as a system. And I don't think we're operating to the full potential that we have as a public health system. Where you live does matter, and where you live determines the amount of public health protection that you have. So my focus is going to be on finding ways to evolve this system, to transform it, if you will. And I'm going to do that by working with stakeholders and really applying some of the lessons we've learned here. We've gone through the accreditation process. We really stripped this health department down to the stud walls and remodeled it and rebuilt it. And I think we've done a lot of things right here. And hopefully I can apply those lessons as we start to work with stakeholders statewide.

I'm curious to why did you decide to go into public health?

I'm an accidental tourist, Michele. I originally thought I was going to go back into the military. I was pursuing an Air Force commission to work in their health systems, their hospital systems. And as fate would have it, Mary Alice Cantrell, who is since departed, but she was a councilwoman and professor in the MPA program there at good ‘ol SMS, recommended that I reach out to a guy named Kevin Gipson and talk to him about the potential for doing an internship. And I did that, and Kevin and I hit it off well, and he escorted me into this office that I’m sitting in right now. And there was Harold Bengsch, that grand old lion, battle scarred and had been through all the public health wars. And we all just hit it off well, and I knew within a week that this is where I needed to be, was in this field. And, man, I made I made a good decision for me. It's been a career that I've been excited to get up every morning and go to work. So what a blessing my life has been just by making that decision to come to work here.

So as you leave us to go work for the Missouri Foundation for Health, what legacy do you hope to leave behind?

You know, I think the legacy is in the institution, and the institution is made up of people. So I just hope that I've impacted some of the young public health people here, maybe inspired them to know what they can achieve. I'm a big believer in leading from Springfield, Missouri. And so I hope that they will continue to lead from here and show what the potential of a public health department is, working collaboratively with, you know, the citizens and institutions.  And really I think it’s encapsulated in our vision statement. We want to help people live longer, healthier, happier lives. And if that staff can do that, then I'll take that any day of the week.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.