Saturday, February 24, 2018
Opinion

Guest column: Protecting public's health is role of health departments

When the Florida Department of Health opened its doors in 1889, Floridians were afflicted with smallpox and yellow fever, and the idea that government should intervene to help keep residents healthy was a new one.

Thankfully, those once-epidemics are under control and the scope of "public health" has expanded along with Florida's population and medical needs.

But even though maintaining a public health system is no longer a radical idea, few people know what the health department actually does to keep people healthy. The 125th anniversary of public health in Florida is a good opportunity to spread the word.

It's likely that you've gone swimming in a public pool, and the Pinellas Health Department's Environmental Health division is the reason you don't get sick from contaminated water. We regularly test every public pool in Pinellas County to make sure they're safe. The same goes for the Gulf of Mexico. Twice a week, health department inspectors collect seawater samples to screen for bacteria. If the levels are too high, we let you know and work to figure out why.

The health department investigates cases of food-borne illness and inspects every tattoo parlor at least once a year. We also offer free help to quit smoking as well as medical and dental services for residents who can't afford to receive care elsewhere. Our breast and cervical cancer program connects patients with free mammograms and Pap tests. The Jail Linkage project provides HIV/AIDS education and testing to inmates, a high-risk population that might otherwise leave prison without knowing they have HIV.

If you've ever traveled outside of the United States, you may have come to the health department to get your shots — we're one of the few entities that provides vaccines recommended for foreign travel. If someone does contract an illness while overseas, our epidemiology department follows up to make sure that person receives care and to prevent the disease from spreading locally. We're currently at the forefront of protecting the public from MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and the mosquito-borne illness chikungunya. We also provide immunizations to protect residents from more common illnesses like flu and measles, and our Pinellas Immunization Team for Community Health educates local doctors and families about the importance of vaccinating young children.

We issue birth and death certificates and license child care centers, and our Maternal & Child Health program serves more than 2,000 families every year. Health department staff educate and support new mothers through an extensive home visiting program. We also house WIC, a federal project that supports good nutrition for women and their babies.

During hurricane season, the health department organizes and staffs the network of shelters that serve residents with special needs. Our Emergency Preparedness department also works closely with law enforcement during events like the Republican National Convention to make sure safety plans are in place.

Most recently, the health department organized an effort to make Pinellas a healthier place to live by identifying problem areas and working with the community to create solutions. Our Community Health Improvement Plan facilitates collaboration with organizations like the Saturday Morning Market and local hospitals. The plan addresses everything from improving the Pinellas Trail to reducing infant mortality and promoting healthy food in schools.

If you have questions about any of our programs, give us a call. If you're curious about health data — for example, birth or immunization rates — we can provide that as well. Informing the community about the resources we provide is an important part of promoting wellness. The health department's work may be less well-known than when it was battling smallpox in 1889, but it plays even more of a role in keeping you safe.

Jocelyn Howard is the Community Health Improvement Plan coordinator at the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. For information about the Health Department: pinellashealth.com; (727) 824-6900.

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