Olmsted County Public Health moves forward without director

·4 min read

Dec. 1—No timeline has been set for hiring a new Olmsted County Public Health director.

"We are going to take it slow," Deputy County Administrator Travis Gransee said.

Graham Briggs' resignation was announced Nov. 17, and associate directors Denise Daniels and Michael Melius were put in charge of the department.

The pair said they anticipate operations to continue without many changes.

"We both have different strengths that complement each other, so for the good majority of the last two years I have led the pandemic response and Mike has taken the responsibilities of leading pretty much all the other aspects of running the business," Daniels said.

Melius and Daniels took on their associate director roles in 2020 shortly before the pandemic reached Minnesota.

Melius brought environmental health experience to the job, and Daniels has a background in promoting community wellness.

"I think having both of us able to connect and bring our strengths to the table has been awesome," Melius said.

Since leaving, Briggs has noted he has faith in the department.

"I am proud of the work we did, and I think it's put us in a position to recover economically more quickly, and in the process we've saved — depending on how you look at the numbers — hundreds or thousands of lives in this community with the hard work the staff in that department did," he said.

At the same time, he cited concerns about community spread.

"I'm concerned about the ongoing risk for Olmsted County residents," he said. "Information on variants, boosters, vaccines for children and what the public can do to help is challenging. I'm hopeful the county quickly finds a good match that is able to guide this community out of the pandemic."

Gransee said he believes the county will find the right person for the job, but acknowledged that many people in the public health field are leaving their positions and looking for other types of work, which could slow the search for Graham's replacement.

As a result, he said the county's answer might already be on staff.

"I also feel we have a number of internal candidates that have strong characteristics that would be a fit for carrying on and moving forward," he said.

Until then, he said the same staff offers a variety of experiences to address community concerns.

Most recently, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Amy Evans provided the county public health voice for a video with Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center staff to address vaccinations for the county's youngest eligible residents.

On Thursday, Daniels will be joined by lead county epidemiologist Meaghan Sherden in presenting a COVID-19 update to county commissioners.

Daniels said the presentation will be similar to the reports Briggs delivered, with an update on the local data and discussion of plans to address concerns.

When it comes to day-to-day operations, Daniels and Melius said they expect staff to remain nimble as some return to more of their pre-COVID duties and others continue to primarily focus on the pandemic response.

While approximately 80% of the county's public health staff saw their duties change during the height of the pandemic, Melius said the number dropped to less than 50% when the need for investigations waned during the summer.

However, workloads continue to remain in flux.

"With cases increasing in the September/October timeframe, we saw it climb back up to where over half the staff was engaged with a heavier workload," he said, adding that some uncertainty remains.

Olmsted County continues to be defined as an area of high community transmission by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 737 cases reported over seven days and a nearly 10.3% positivity rate in testing.

The department's first vaccination clinic for 5- to 11-year-olds is Wednesday (Dec. 1), and Melius and Daniels said such events draw staff from other roles, even as they work to catch up on work that has fallen behind since early 2020.

"Every work group in our department had to pivot, adjust and adapt to the way they work," Daniels said.

The associate directors said they anticipate that flexibility will continue to be needed as public health staff juggles response to the changing pandemic with ongoing efforts to return to more of their pre-COVID work.

"As we've been able, we've transitioned staff back to their original work," Melius said, adding the shift doesn't rule out COVID-related duties.

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