Ch@t: New interim top county health official steps in during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted 6/12/20

Chatham County Public Health Director Layton Long has just retired after more than 30 years in the field, and more than six with Chatham County. Stepping in to take his place in the interim is …

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Ch@t: New interim top county health official steps in during COVID-19 pandemic

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Chatham County Public Health Director Layton Long has just retired after more than 30 years in the field, and more than six with Chatham County. Stepping in to take his place in the interim is Michael Zelek, the department’s Health Promotion & Policy Division Director. It’s a heckuva time for a changeover in what might be the county government’s most critical department right now, but Zelek can rely on nearly eight years of experience in the public health field, a three-year stint with an overseas nonprofit and working side-by-side with Long during the pandemic to get started.

He spoke to the News + Record about the transition, his career and other health issues affecting Chatham right now.

First, a little background information about you. Where are you from originally? What is your education background, and how long have you been with the CCPHD?

I am originally from Nashville, Tennessee, where I lived before going to college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. After I graduated, I moved to northern Nicaragua, where I volunteered and worked with a nonprofit organization called Fabretto Children’s Foundation for three years. I first served as an English teacher and then coordinated health initiatives. That’s where I found my calling for public health, and what led me to move to North Carolina to complete a Masters of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill. I graduated from UNC in 2012 and started with the Chatham County Public Health Department later that year. My first role was as the Social Research Associate for the department, and then I was promoted to Health Promotion & Policy Division Director. So I have been with the department for nearly eight years.

 

What was the experience in Nicaragua like, and how did that lead you to Chatham County?

My time in Nicaragua is what led me to public health. In the time I lived there, I saw children in need of healthcare who had difficulty accessing it for a variety of reasons. I also saw the impact of systemic challenges on health, similar to what we see here, though in that setting perhaps more stark. I enjoyed this work but knew I needed further training in public health to be most effective, which led me to North Carolina for graduate school. My wife is also in public health (Jess Edwards an assistant professor of epidemiology at UNC), and she has had a major influence on my career path as well.

After graduating, I was fortunate to be offered a position with the Chatham County Public Health Department. In Chatham County, I have found a welcoming community that is supportive of public health and a kind and talented staff at the health department. Because of this, Chatham County is the best place in the state to do public health work, and I consider myself very fortunate to be here.

 

What did Layton Long bring to the CCPHD, and what will be most missed about him working with the department?

Layton brought many things to the department, but I think his willingness to challenge the status quo and readiness to engage partners in this work are what stand out most. His leadership has resulted in many new initiatives, from the Chatham Health Alliance to equity work, and he had a constant vision focused on best aligning the department’s services with the needs of the Chatham community. He believes in public health and efficiently utilizing the resources we have to serve the community as best we can. We will certainly miss working with him and his skills, knowledge and experience, but his legacy of collaboration, efficiency and innovation will live on.

What is your first priority as the new interim health director, and why?

We are in the midst of a battle with a global pandemic and expect response efforts to continue for quite some time. Like local health departments around the country, working to slow the spread of the virus and mitigate its impact on our community is a top priority. What is special about Chatham is that people and organizations across the county work well together and understand the importance of partnership. In public heath, during normal times and especially in a pandemic, we know how valuable this is. From Emergency Management, the County Manager’s Office, and elected officials to UNC Health, Piedmont Health Services, many nonprofit organizations, and Chatham community members, we rely on our partners every day to meet our objectives and work to support their efforts as well. We know this is not the case everywhere and are extremely grateful for this collaboration.

While COVID-19 has had a major impact on our work, other efforts must continue as well. We are engaged in ongoing conversations to best align our services with those of our partners to meet community needs. For example, with labor and delivery services coming to Chatham Hospital in the coming months, we are in the midst of planning discussions to coordinate related services. We also continue to lead collaborative efforts to address the health impact priorities from our community assessment through the Chatham Health Alliance. And there are cross-cutting priorities that intersect with but also span beyond COVID-19, like health equity and community assessment. All of this in addition to our routine services like environmental health inspections, tobacco prevention and control, care management, and clinical services. So, COVID-19 will continue to be a major part of what we do, but other important efforts continue as well. I continue to be inspired by our team’s ability to juggle these tasks during a pandemic, and will support them in every way that I can.

Are there any other health concerns right now outside of COVID-19 that Chathamites should be paying attention to or be aware of?

Unfortunately, other health concerns don’t go away during a pandemic; rather, they can be made worse due to the stress and other challenges related to COVID-19. Our health impact priorities (access to comprehensive health services, poverty, and obesity) are a good place to start when considering health-related issues most affecting the Chatham community.

Looking at access to comprehensive health services, for example, delaying routine healthcare, like check-ups and dental cleanings, can lead to more serious health issues. We are encouraging residents to talk to their medical providers about these visits, which can often be done through telehealth or with other precautions in place to reduce risk of infection.

We also know that the stress of COVID-19 can affect our mental health and exacerbate underlying issues. In addition to reaching out to mental health professionals with whom you have an established relationship, there are resources available you can call, such as the Hope4NC Helpline (1-855-587-3463), the Hope Line for older adults (1-866-578-HOPE) and the Cardinal Innovations 24/7 line (1-800-939-5911). More resources can be found at our websites: www.chathamnc.org/coronavirushelp (in Spanish www.chathamnc.org/coronavirusayuda), www.chathamnc.org/mentalhealth and www.chathamnc.org/recovery.

COVID-19 may also affect our level of physical activity as routines are altered and some resources, like gyms, are closed to prevent spread of the virus. That said, remaining active is essential to staying healthy as it can boost immune response and has both physical and mental health benefits, so we continue to encourage folks to get outside and exercise (while maintaining a safe distance from others).

We have also seen the economic impact of COVID-19 locally and around the country, and know that financial well-being influences health outcomes. There are a number of initiatives underway to support those who have been financially affected by the pandemic and resources shared on the website above.

In looking at these issues and many others affecting health, it is always important to pay attention to specific communities and populations that are more adversely affected and to take into consideration underlying issues that may drive these inequities. We are well-versed in using this equity lens in public health, as it is critical to the work we do. COVID-19 has taken advantage of these underlying inequities. As an article I recently came across described it, “COVID-19 is a magnifying glass that has highlighted the larger pandemic of racial/ethnic disparities in health.” The virus has also had a greater impact on those with underlying health issues and the aging population. For all of these issues, we must dig below the surface to understand what is really going on so that we can address the root of the problem.

How has the CCPHD worked to help businesses, organizations and other Chatham residents through this “re-opening” time period?

Re-opening is a gradual process and many strategies together are needed to mitigate the risk of spread of the virus. In Chatham County, I am very proud of the work our team and partners have done in this realm. We have been sharing guidance with employers since very early in the pandemic through many channels, and formed a COVID-19 business recovery planning team in April to delve deeper into response efforts.

To assist businesses as they plan to reopen and operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chatham County created “Reopening Your Business: A Guide for Safely Opening and Operating Your Business.” The guide includes recommendations specific to business type. Several Chatham County agencies worked together to develop the guide, which is continually updated to reflect the latest guidance.

We also partner with Chatham County Emergency Management on weekly coordinating calls with many community agencies, continue to work with our healthcare partners to increase testing capacity, have staff leading the many aspects of response such as contact tracing, organized donation drives for protective equipment for frontline workers and the distribution of face coverings through the Chatham Health Alliance, are conducting a community assessment to better understand COVID-19’s impact on and prevalence in Chatham County, regularly share public health information and guidance with our community, and take on other COVID-19-related tasks daily that are too numerous to keep track of, all while maintaining most of our regular services. So, this is a tremendous team effort, both within the department and beyond, and I am constantly amazed by the dedication and ingenuity of our staff as they respond to an unprecedented challenge in COVID-19.

What’s something on your desk that can help Chatham residents get to know you a little better?

A standing desk! Little things can help us on our paths to better health. While I could stand to use it more consistently, I find it gives me a boost of energy and can help me think more clearly.

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