Government and Health Care

Kent County responds to opioid, PFAS epidemics

Board of Commissioners votes to approve hire of two new epidemiologists.

March 23, 2018
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The Kent County Health Department will hire two new epidemiologists in response to the opioid and environmental “crises” facing the area.

The Kent County Board of Commissioners voted to approve the hires at its March 22nd meeting.

Adam London, administrative health officer, issued a letter proposing the new positions to Wayman Britt, the county administrator, and Amy Rollston, the human resources director, with advisement from the Community Health Advisory Committee.

The health department has $220,000 set aside in the budget for emergent issues, and that will go toward funding the new positions, said Teresa Branson, the county’s deputy administrative health officer.

Including salary and benefits, the person in each position will earn $95,920.

London wrote the environmental issues — including recent PFAS discoveries, vapor intrusion and lead — have taken an “extraordinary amount of staff time” and added there are “thousands of potential (vapor) intrusion sites yet to investigate.”

“The current commitment of staffing to these issues is compromising our ability to provide other essential services such as: disease surveillance, permitting, restaurant plan review, inspections and vaccination campaigns,” London wrote.

The environment position will be assigned to these ongoing issues and act as the “primary intermediary with other agencies, exercise legal authorities in accordance with the Public Health Code, communicate with residents and health providers, coordinate specimen collection, provide subject matter expertise and conduct health surveillance.”

PFAS chemicals were discovered in drinking water last year after Rockford-based Wolverine Worldwide allegedly dumped waste containing the chemicals from 3M’s Scotchgard product at more than 75 sites in Kent County in the 1960s.

“As more areas of contamination are discovered, it is clear we need to adjust staffing levels to meet the needs of our residents,” said Jim Saalfeld, chair of the county’s board of commissioners.

While Branson said the staff has done their “best to stay up-to-date and informed,” they need someone to step in to provide expertise and relief.

“I am confident that these issues are never going to go away,” London said.

The request for an epidemiologist to focus on opioid issues comes before funding for an opioid task force through the Red Project, funded by Steelcase, runs out in April.

“We feel like it’s time for the health department to take responsibility of the task force and lead the community,” Branson said.

In Kent County, the rate of overdose deaths has increased four-fold since 2000, with 70 opioid-related deaths and more than 680 opioid overdose-related emergency department visits in 2016, according to data from the health department. In 2017, the county reported 93 opioid-related deaths with an average age of 39 years old, not including results from a toxicology report yet to come.

London sees “no reason” this will change without “greater intervention.”

The opioid epidemiologist will lead an opioid task force to a “very comprehensive approach” toward prevention, recovery and, ultimately, stopping the epidemic.

Branson said the department believes there will be a long-term need for both these positions to continue.

“We don’t really see this as one-and-done,” she said. “Our plans are to aggressively pursue funding to support these positions long term.”

The positions, which will develop as time goes on, do not remove other staff from working on these issues, Branson said. It just fills a need to have dedicated staff on these issues.

The jobs will be posted within the next few days.

“We are here to serve, protect and promote a healthy community for all,” she said, adding that includes every household impacted by these issues. “We’ll continue to dedicate resources to respond to these issues and to communicate information as we can in a timely manner.”

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