Lewis County is going forward with contract negotiations to bring on board Dr. Alan Melnick and Dr. Steven Krager as its new public health officer and deputy health officer. The move is a change from statements made weeks earlier, when county officials said the search to replace Dr. Rachel Wood would likely wait until the new year, when incoming county commissioners Sean Swope and Lindsey Pollock take office. Final approval will still likely wait until 2021.
If approved, Melnick would serve simultaneously as Lewis County’s and Clark County’s health officer, while also working with Skamania County’s public health department. In October, he was invited to speak to county commissioners as a potential candidate to replace Wood, who will retire before the end of February. No other prospective health officers were publicly identified.
“He’s really wise and I learned a lot from him,” Wood said this week of Melnick. “He’s one of the people who I consider a mentor, so I think we’d be in excellent hands. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Anderson told commissioners that beginning discussions with Melnick sooner rather than later would mean a smoother transition and help “to assure we have a consistent, well-established and predictable response” to COVID-19.
The move also comes against the backdrop of rumors that Gov. Jay Inslee will soon seek to replace county public health departments with larger, regional departments that answer to the state. This week, county officials expressed “major concerns” that the rumored bill, expected to benefit public health through an influx of funding, would also shift control away from smaller communities and undermine local efforts.
Anderson suggested that Melnick could help the county rally against such a measure, saying he’s one of the “strongest voices for local control of local health jurisdictions.”
“It’s an issue he’s passionate about, and he’s championed ... one he’s fought for very well and very effectively in many different areas in the past,” Anderson said.
He also noted that “should we not have a health officer appointed by the end of Dr. Wood’s tenure, the state of Washington will step in and become our health officer that day.”
Under Melnick, Clark County Public Health has offered more transparency around COVID-19 cases than Lewis County has, confirming outbreaks in schools and cases by ZIP code. The county’s population is six times greater than Lewis County’s. However, Anderson said he doesn’t expect Melnick to usher in major data policy changes, instead saying that increased case counts will likely allow the county to publicize more data.
Clark County Public Health has also presented a more cautious approach to reopening schools, largely deferring to the state’s guidelines, which Lewis County bucked this fall in bringing students back to in-person classes. According to Clark County Public Health’s website, the department will “consider recommending expanding in-person learning” if the county remains in the moderate risk category for at least three weeks. Most counties in the state have fallen into the high-risk category for several weeks now, with far more than 75 new cases per 100,000. Lewis County recommended high schoolers begin coming back to school earlier this week.
When asked if Lewis County’s aggressive approach to reopening schools — spearheaded by a workgroup of pediatricians, superintendents, and public health officials — would be able to continue under Melnick, Anderson told county commissioners that he’s “confident” it would.
County commissioners unanimously agreed to allow Anderson to begin negotiations to hire Melnick and Krager.
“He’s very knowledgeable and he’s personable, and I like that about him,” said Commissioner Bobby Jackson, who served with Melnick on the Southwest Clean Air Agency this year. “When we met with him virtually … I was impressed, and I think he’ll give us a good opportunity here, especially as we’re moving into this stage in the COVID pandemic.”
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