Island County considers new health officer after old one quit

The state took over COVID-19 contact tracing after an exodus of several health staffers in December.

By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

The Island County Board of Health is holding a special session Wednesday to hire a new public health officer to replace one who quit.

The five members of the board will consider whether to appoint Dr. Scott Lindquist, the state’s epidemiologist on communicable diseases, to the position.

The former health officer, Dr. Joel McCullough, notified Island County Public Health on Dec. 13 that he would not renew his contract in the new year.

“There appears to be a pattern of inadequate communication with myself on key personnel and clinical issues which presents an unacceptable risk to me,” he wrote in an email to the board.

In addition to McCullough, the majority of the department’s public health nurses and their supervisor also suddenly quit. As a result, the state took over COVID-19 contact tracing in Island County.

In December, COVID Response Manager Don Mason told the commissioners that Public Health was working with the state to temporarily provide a health officer. Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson voiced concerns about the lack of information about how the potential fill-in position would work as well as the timing, given that the Board of Health wasn’t meeting again in regular session until Jan. 19.

Under state law, a health officer is a medical doctor with a wide range of powers and duties who acts under the direction of the board of health or the administrative officer.

State law says the health officer is supposed to “take such action as is necessary to maintain health and sanitation supervision,” control and prevent the spread of disease, attend state public health conferences and even collect fees.

In practice in Island County, however, most of this work has been transferred to the Public Health director and his staff under the supervision of the health officer, according to county officials.

The health officer does advise the Board of Health and staff members from a medical or clinical point of view.

The county commissioners said they hoped to ensure a new health officer would continue to be available to speak with staff during a weekly meeting.

In an email, McCullough wrote that he wasn’t informed that the nurse trained to deal with tuberculosis quit until more than a month after she left.

“If informed at that time,” he wrote, “I could have instructed leadership what needs to happen ASAP to make sure there was some degree of knowledge to deal with TB issue should they occur. Of course, a TB issue has come up and it’s been very challenging.”

The position has had some controversy in the past.

Dr. Brad Thomas, the former health officer, was criticized by both sides in the debate over the noise from the Navy’s EA-18G Growler aircraft and whether it causes health problems. An advocacy group complained about him and the director to the state Department of Health, claiming that they were shirking their duty to address jet noise as a public health issue. The state board exonerated them.

The online meeting is 11 a.m. on Jan. 6.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.

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