Keeping watch for the public’s health is a life calling for Matt Richardson, the new director for the Denton County Health Department.
His life was on a different track when, in 2002, former President George Bush signed bioterrorism legislation to earmark $4.6 billion to stockpile vaccines, improve food inspections and boost security for water systems following the 9/11 and anthrax attacks.
As part of Denton County’s public health preparedness team created with funds from the legislation, Richardson worked to create the county’s preparedness for everything from manmade disasters to a pandemic or other public health calamity.
Richardson then moved on to Amarillo, where he served as the county health director for nine years, before recently returning to Denton County.
Now, as he looks forward, Richardson sees the next challenge before him: providing the same level of public health service to one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S.
“With a growing and aging population, we have many challenges ahead,” Richardson said. “Our role is seeing the population as our patient.”
The Denton County Health Department serves as the hub for providing vaccinations for children or for travelers, offering clinical health care for those without insurance as well as educating the public about health concerns and looking for ways to collaboratively address any issues.
“We are trying to treat people where they can infect others,” he said.“That’s our job. We’re the only ones where the population’s health is our responsibility.”
One example is the ongoing education about the Chikungunya and West Nile viruses – both currently impacting Denton County.
Another example of what the county health department handles is evident in a recent meeting with university and hospital officials to discuss the signs and symptoms of epidemics such as Ebola.
“We talked about the types of isolation and facilities needed” should an outbreak occur in the county, he said. “We want to initiate those discussions.”
Though Ebola has largely been limited to West African countries, the current strain is less virulent than before, causing concern among health officials around the world. And, recently with the confirmed case in Dallas, those advance preparations are timely.
The idea, Richardson said, is to always plan ahead just in case.
With influenza season on the horizon, Richardson and his team are encouraging residents to get their flu vaccinations – an important component, he said, to curbing the spread of an illness that claims between 30,000 to 40,000 lives each year.
“We know we’re going to have an outbreak each year,” he said. “The more people in our neighborhoods, communities, states, country, the globe who are immunized, the better we all are.”
Richardson also hopes to debunk a few myths about the flu vaccine. First, it does not give anyone the flu, he said. Because the influenza vaccine takes about 7-10 days to become active, people can get a shot and be exposed the virus before the immunization takes effect. Secondly, science has not proven the vaccine triggers the disease process for other ailments, he said.
Richardson brings several goals to his job as health director – goals he believes will ultimately benefit the populace he is committed to protect.
The first is to maintain focus with data-driven research. Secondly, he expects the health department to operate within its budgetary limits while pursuing grants and partnerships as needed. And third, he expects to inform lawmakers about issues within Denton County to seek chronic disease funding or address issues through laws to protect the public’s health.
Richardson said he believed it was important to ensure clean water and safe food for the public in addition to continuing the legacy of giving individual care for uninsured individuals. “We’re the last hope for the uninsured,” he said, adding that the county is also home to 17 free and charitable clinics.
However, the need still exists.
“Even with the arrival of the Affordable Care Act, it still hasn’t gotten those who need care seen,” he said.
Richardson is especially proud of the health department’s Medical Reserve Corps, which currently has 950 members ready to assist in times of emergency. It is also one of the largest medical reserve corps he’s aware of in the region.
“The Corps is a vibrant team of volunteers who continue to train for disasters,” he said.
As first responders, they are key to offering assistance at critical times.
“We enjoy knowing we have this dedicated group of people to help us. I’m continually amazed by their dedication. … That’s a resource that very few counties enjoy.”