Across most of the High Desert, masks are off, but the effects of the pandemic on rural health departments still lingers.
Dr. Michael Baker, Health Services Director of Jefferson County Public Health, is stepping down from his role this summer after nearly six years of service.
The reasons are many, but he told Central Oregon Daily News on Tuesday that frustrations with the OHA are largely to blame.
“These difficulties with working with the Oregon Health Authority have been here ever since I’ve been here, since 2016,” Baker said.
He earned his undergraduate degree from Washington State University, and earned his MsPH as well as a Ph.D. in Public Health with a focus on rural public health from Walden University. He went on to become Deputy Director of the department of the Whitman County Health Department.
When Baker made the move to Jefferson County, it didn’t take long for concerns to arise.
“I didn’t realize the level of involvement the Oregon Health Authority has on a daily level, in local public health here in Oregon,” he said. “My job is often delegated to being their local representative, and that’s not what I wanted to do in rural public health.
“I wanted…to be the real ‘boots on the ground’ so to speak, to understand what the community needs and wants and then make the decision that helps improve the health of everyone in the community.
“Here in Oregon, I don’t feel that I actually have that ability to make those choices and decisions that I believe need to happen on the local level,” he added.
When the pandemic hit, those frustrations only grew.
“I often felt like I was completely forgotten, sometimes I felt I was ignored,” Baker said. “We requested more testing supplies early on and were denied, we requested more vaccines early on and were denied…at one point we were even told that our vaccine was being re-prioritized to a larger mass vaccination clinic in one of the urban areas, and we were left without getting vaccines for that week.”
During the pandemic, Baker only had one day off, which he spent traveling to visit his son.
“I was really working 24/7 practically, 7 days a week,” he said. “But I wasn’t the only one.”
Jefferson County Public Health currently has 13 full-time staff members, which rose to 16 during the height of the pandemic.
They all juggled various roles, and Baker regularly helped set up and take down vaccine and testing clinics across the county, as well as contact tracing, social media engagement, keeping up with the latest data, and performing case investigations.
Crook County Public Health’s Health and Human Services Director Katie Plumb cited similar stresses during the pandemic, especially over getting enough resources from the OHA.
“There were definitely times when my resilience was low and maybe I just tried a different route, or was just so frustrated that I would not go there,” she said.
She was saddened to learn that those factors had contributed to Baker’s departure.
“It’s sad to lose good leaders, Mike is definitely a champion in our region and in our state specifically for advocating for rural public health initiatives,” Plumb added.
Crook County Public Health saw large amounts of turnover during the pandemic, and they currently have a full-time staff of 18.
Plumb believes more could have been done on the part of the OHA and the CDC to help rural health departments, but believes the future can look brighter if departments are willing to be flexible.
“I think that the OHA used the information that they had to make the best decisions that they could at the time,” she said. “There were definitely times when more resources went to larger communities, because more resources were needed in larger communities. It was not to say that less was needed here, and so…I would tell them that.
“Maybe if I wasn’t working with the state, maybe I was working with another partner or organization or system to make sure that we got the resources that we needed.
“But that’s also the role of local health, is to be creative and to leverage partnerships with our community based organizations, our health system partners,” she added. “And so yes, the state is a huge part in the role that we play locally, but it’s also not the only partner that we have.”
For Baker, the lack of support, paired with the long hours, and the pressure of caring for 25,000 people with only 13 full-time staff members, is finally too much to bear.
He is unsure what his next steps will be after stepping down.
“I’ve been in public health for 20 plus years, every year of that has been in rural public health,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve lost the desire to be in public health, or maybe just lost the desire to be in public health in Oregon…what that looks like in the future, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Baker’s departure, scheduled for mid-July, comes as a new Health and Wellness Campus opens in Madras.
The public health center, along with Mosaic Medical clinic and a community room, will occupy a building next to St. Charles Madras starting on April 25.