For health officer, the spotlight wasn’t part of plan

Posted December 8, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought more attention to public health officials than most would have ever expected to receive in their lifetimes, and that includes Pierce County Public Health Director AZ Snyder.

Prior to March of this year, the role of local public health directors had gone largely unnoticed by many Americans.

“Public health is used to working quietly and effectively in the background,” said Snyder. “I think a lot of people don’t know about the role that their local health department plays in making their lives more healthy and vibrant every day. The COVID-19 pandemic has really thrust public health officials into the public spotlight in a way that we’re not typically used to.”

Many in the public health field have faced harassment or even physical threats from Americans online who simply ignore the realities of COVID-19. Last week National Public Radio reported that “more than 70 health officials have been fired, resigned or plan to leave their posts since the pandemic began in the U.S.,” according to a tally by Lori Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Although Snyder herself has faced harassment and even some threats online, mostly through Facebook, she said she doesn’t let those remarks get to her or stop her from doing the job she came home to do.

“Although these threats are very disappointing and very inappropriate, it’s not going to stop me from doing my job,” Snyder said. “I came to Wisconsin to do a job. I came home to do a job. This is my community, this is my home. I am a River Falls city resident and I’m not going to stop doing my job because a couple people can’t behave themselves online,” said Snyder.

Snyder continued, “Wanting coronavirus to go away doesn’t make anyone a bad person. Not liking the changes that this has made to all of our lives doesn’t make anyone a bad person. I am just as frustrated as anyone in our community that we can’t have gatherings, that we can’t go over to our loved ones’ houses. I don’t like that either, but we have all had to make sacrifices to keep not only ourselves, but each other safe.”

Snyder has had former colleagues and classmates face these same challenges, too, but not all of them have been able to keep their jobs and have the support from their county boards as she has had.

“I graduated as a new orientation health officer in Wisconsin with a really strong group of very talented young health officers and many of them, and possibly most of them, are no longer in their positions. Either because they resigned due to burnout and the extreme workload that we’re facing, or they were pushed out of their position for political reasons,” said Snyder.

Snyder was born in Lino Lakes, Minnesota, and moved to River Falls when she was a teenager. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and then a master’s degree in public health from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom.

Each state health department puts new health officers through a training program in their first year in office, giving them the title of new orientation health officer. Before coming back home to Wisconsin to become director of Pierce County Public Health, Snyder was in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, which covers the southern parts of Baltimore all the way south to Rose Haven. There, Snyder was the director of the office of planning and assessment for Anne Arundel County Department of Health, which employed over 700 people at the time.

Snyder became director of Pierce County Public Health in 2018. She said she hoped to help the department shift from a focus on individual health services and broaden the impact of community health services for the entirety of the county.

Snyder explained, “Before COVID-19 we had just completed our community health needs assessment with a variety of partners including United Way, hospitals, our school systems, UW-River Falls. That really took a deep dive into what the main problems are in as far as health in our community. We identified mental health and substance use disorder as the main area of topics we wanted to focus on.”

Although COVID-19 has caused a backup in terms of where Pierce County Public Health hoped to be in the community health improvement plan, the department continues to work at it, according to Snyder.

With all the directions Snyder has been pulled this year, she said she has still managed to make time for herself and her mental health.

“I do try to take breaks for myself and I think my staff have been really good at supporting me at taking breaks,” Snyder said. “For instance, for me, Sunday night is sacred. I don’t work on Sunday nights. I like to have dinner with my husband. I have a little puppy. Well, he’s not a puppy, he’s 9. I really like to take those breaks.”

Not only do Snyder’s breaks at home help her, but also the community. Pierce County community members have had bagels delivered to the public health office, and notes and letters have come from church organizations or individuals. This has also helped Snyder from feeling that the workload of her job is burning her out.

“I truly believe that Pierce County residents are wonderful people and they deserve the very best health officer that I can be, and that’s what keeps me going,” Snyder said. “I think that our community deserves the best service out of our local health department and so I hold myself to that high standard.”

Over the last few weeks, news of multiple COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and others have brought promising signs to the end of the pandemic, although the majority of Americans may not be able to receive a vaccination until late spring or early summer. This has made vaccine planning Snyder’s No. 1 priority. Snyder said Pierce County and others in western Wisconsin will receive some level of the Pfizer vaccine, but not enough for all health care workers.

Distribution will also be somewhat challenging for western Wisconsin counties to start. The Pfizer vaccine is required to be kept in a deep freeze in order to be effective, but not all health clinics in the region have the proper equipment for it. A distribution center will be set up for these counties to receive the vaccine, and from there it will be brought to local hospitals and health clinics.

“We hope by summer the vaccines will be widely available to the general public. We don’t know for sure, but that’s the hope,” said Snyder. “I know that as it gets cold outside and we can’t gather outdoors, the holidays are coming and we are missing gathering with our family. I know it’s easy to lose hope, and I am trying to tell our community that at least the beginning of the end is in sight. Don’t lose hope.”