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Sugar House Journal

Salt Lake County Public Health Department Wins National Award, 
Celebrates 50 Years As Combined Entity

Jul 22, 2019 16h15 ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Executive Director of the Salt Lake County Public Health Department Gary Edwards is focused on continuing to advance public health for residents. (Photo Salt Lake County)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected] 

It has been a big summer for the Salt Lake County Public Health Department.

What this means, according to the leader of public health initiatives for the county, is that residents can be confident in the county’s proactively tending to public health needs, from restaurant experiences to epidemics such as suicides and opioid addiction.

Last month, SLCPHD received the National Health Department of the Year honor from the National Association of County and City Health Officials. The county has never previously won the award, which has, up to this point, only honored a handful of counties.

This month, just one month later, marks SLCPHD’s 50
th anniversary as a combined entity servicing the county municipalities as well as Salt Lake City, which until 50 years ago had its own organization.

Salt Lake County: the 2019 National Health Department of the Year

The national organization honored SLCPHD for its work as an “extra large health department—for populations in excess of 750,000,” Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County division, told the City Journals. 

According to data from the 2018 United States Census Bureau, Salt Lake County is the 37thlargest county in the country by population.

“Quite an honor,” is how he described the award, which lauded the county’s efforts to seek innovative, public/private partnerships for health needs and to expertly implement those solutions.

The department was honored for its management of the 18-month (2017-2019) hepatitis A outbreak and for its first envisioning, then driving the establishment of the Salt Lake Public Health Center, downtown’s new one-stop building for public health and healthcare services.

With regards to the management of the hepatitis A outbreak, Edwards noted the county was credited with “identifying and building trust with homeless and substance-abuse populations” as well as working with healthcare organizations, hospitals and even restaurants and other facilities “where the homeless congregate” to ensure necessary cleanliness and vaccinate any who may have been exposed to the virus and would, in turn, expose others.  

The new 40,000-square-foot Salt Lake County Public Health Center, which opened in February, was credited with being a “more efficient, more convenient place for staff and public,” Edwards said.

The building, he said, through SLCPHD’s partnership with Community Health Centers, delivers not just public health, but healthcare services to uninsured and underinsured individuals—all under one roof. 

How does the award inform Salt Lake County residents?

When asked what being named the nation’s best public health department means to Salt Lake County residents, Edwards said, “The residents can have confidence that the Salt Lake County Health Department is not just sitting back, doing the same things we have always done… [We are] looking to be innovative in providing services to the community.”

Part of this forward-looking, proactive stance includes developing a network with peer counties, information sharing and assessing, said Edwards.

Keeping elite company with country’s most visionary public health organizations

He indicated SLCPHD routinely studies and shares best practices with an elite group of peer counties that “always seem to stand out,” including Denver County, Colorado; Hennepin County, Minnesota; and King County, Washington. 

Edwards said that these three counties are routinely considered best-in-class for overall public health services, and, when asked, indicated that Salt Lake County is on the cusp of joining that elite group.

He also said that SLCPHD is “regularly” credited on a national level for public health-related programs and accomplishments. 

‘Behind the eight ball’ on suicide prevention, poor air quality-related health, overweight individuals 

When asked what lies ahead for SLCPHD in 2019, he noted: “We’re doing an intense evaluation, right now,” in areas where Salt Lake County is “behind the eight ball.” 

These critical areas include high suicide rates for men age 25 and older and poor air quality-related health consequences. He also mentioned healthy weight management being an area of needed improvement for the county population.

“Traditionally, public health has relied on two- or more year-old data,” he said. SLCPHD is now seeking to capture more real time data, versus relying on morbidity data, which has limited usefulness.

SLCPHD’s data leveraging strategies show a department that acts regionally as well as locally. Edwards paints a picture of the county health monitoring real time data and mapping that to zip codes to uncover troublesome “pockets” of opioid use in terms of zip codes and be able to mobilize treatment, education, and other resources to communities needing the most help.

Edwards told the City Journals that, in the 14 years since he has headed the department, all three county mayors—Peter Corroon, then Ben McAdams, and now Jenny Wilson—have been “incredibly supportive” of the work that the SLCPHD does. “We just keep moving forward. They have always remained supportive of our efforts.”