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Public health workers focus on community and wellness | News, Sports, Jobs


A member of the county public health department is pictured during a rapid test clinic in 2020. Photo submitted

Editor’s note: April 4-10 is National Public Health Week. This article highlights some public health workers in Chautauqua County.

When you get sick, you can go to the doctor’s office to get medicine and treatment to get better. When you are injured, you can go to the hospital or emergency care to have your injury treated. But what about those working behind the scenes, helping to maintain a healthy and safe community? This is where public health comes in.

“We don’t just worry about one person walking through the door or one person living in a specific neighborhood. We need to think about everyone everywhere and how can we positively impact the health and well-being of all those people, even though we know different measures will be taken in different places,” said Christine Schuyler, director of public health and commissioner of social services.

Janelle Hartloff is a registered nurse who previously worked for Brooks Hospital, but changed 14 years ago to become a public nurse. “I really enjoyed working with the community, working with the residents with people who needed our help,” she says.

Cathy Burgess previously worked for UPMC and is now Director of Community Health Nursing. She started with the department at the family planning clinic in Dunkirk. “I was really interested in women’s health at the time,” she says.

Shelly Wells, a public health nurse and planner, said she enjoys helping the community as a whole. “I think the difference between being a nurse and treating people and public health is that you are really looking at preventative measures. You look at the things that keep people from getting sick instead of treating them after they get sick,” she says.

County epidemiologist Breeanne Agett spends much of her time collecting and analyzing data. “The goal is to look at all the data to see what the health issues are in the community and then work to try to identify what the causes of those issues are,” she says.

In Chautauqua County, studies show that chronic illnesses tend to be caused by poor diet, lack of physical activity and smoking. “We are working with several organizations in the community to try to identify precisely these issues, and then work together to determine how we are going to solve them,” Agett said.

While many public health workers in the past two years have focused on COVID-19, they had a number of health issues before this pandemic. Some of them include outbreaks of measles, whooping cough (whooping cough), H1N1 (swine flu), rabies, etc. According to Schuyler, there are more than 70 reportable human diseases in New York State that they monitor. “The job of the local health department has always been to investigate any of these illnesses that come to our attention and take action to prevent the spread of that illness,” she says.

Public health also goes beyond nursing. Natalie Whiteman, is the County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. She has worked for the county’s public health department for more than 20 years, beginning with inspecting water treatment plants and assisting with various water-related emergencies. While in the county, she also helped inspect homes for lead and lead-based paint, and found problems throughout the county. “We’ve seen a lot of kids in substandard housing that have been affected (by lead), but we’ve also seen a lot of cases where it’s middle-class or even upper-middle-class kids who have assumed” we are buying this very nice house in a very good upscale neighborhood, so it must be safe. But if it was built in the 50s or 60s, chances are it’s not safe. she says.

Another issue Whiteman is concerned about is the county’s aging infrastructure. “We have wastewater treatment plants that are really past their lifespan. There are pipes in the ground that are well past their lifespan and need to be fixed before we have a huge public health problem due to a failing water system or a failing sanitation system », she says.

The public health department also deals with food issues, such as e-coli outbreaks and the potential for rabies.

Whiteman notes that the county handles hundreds of calls each year for bites from dogs, cats and bats. “We find the animal, we find the owner and we do prevention if necessary”, she says.

With so many problems, Schuyler calls public health “Switzerland” of medical care. “We make policies, change systems and give advice to other members of the community,” she says.

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