The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Oct. 14 appointed Public Health Deputy Director Jessica Guernsey to serve as public health administrator.
Oregon law gives county health departments the power, acting as a Local Public Health Authority, to carry out state public health laws, and requires each Local Public Health Authority appoint a public health administrator to supervise the public health programs of the local health department, and to enforce state public health laws.
The administrator helps the county develop public health policies, and has oversight of investigations of reportable diseases and infections, and measures to contain infections and diseases. In some counties, including Multnomah, the public health director holds the position of public health administrator.
Guernsey will assume the role of director Oct. 26, when current Director Rachael Banks moves to the Oregon Health Authority to oversee public health for the state.
Chair Deborah Kafoury said Guernsey's two decades of experience in a range of public health programs—from overdose prevention to maternal child health to pandemic influenza—prepare her to lead the division’s 266 employees and oversee the division’s $59 million budget. For now Guernsey's job will also require she assume responsibility of the county’s COVID-19 response, including 100 additional employees and a $35 million budget.
“She has helped cement our reputation as a proactive and nimble Local Public Health Authority that not only promotes the health and wellbeing of our community, but that responds quickly and competently to crises,” Kafoury said during the Oct. 14 board meeting. “She is the right person to lead public health into the future.”
Guernsey thanked the board for their confidence, saying the transition is bittersweet.
“I’m so grateful for the past 20 years of working side by side with Rachael,” she said. “We had our babies within a month of each other. We had a lot of late nights, especially in the last 8 months.”
She said she has learned much from working alongside Banks. “Grace, humility, elevating community wisdom and confronting our historical wrongs that are the root to all health issues we see now,” she said. “People talk about change but Rachael manifests change.”
Banks said Guernsey has worked tirelessly to carry out that mandate.
“She is fiercely competent. She will get us through this pandemic,” Banks said. “Jessica is the perfect person at the perfect time to watch over our health.”
Also on Oct. 14 the Board formally accepted the appointment of Tasha Wheatt-Delancy, as the new Health Center Executive Director of the Integrated Clinical Services division.
Unlike most leadership roles, which can be appointed by the Board of Commissioners, the director of the clinic system, the state’s largest federally qualified health system, is appointed by a Community Health Council. Wheatt-Delancy assumed the position as interim director in January, after longtime director Vanetta Abdellatif accepted a position overseeing a foundation in Washington State.
The County opened a national recruitment and presented candidates to the Council for consideration. But the Council already had the perfect candidate.
“She has provided stability. Her vision is rooted in community, the foundation of the health center movement,” Council Chair Harold Odhiambo said during the Oct. 14 meeting. “Tasha is one person who has willpower, patience, integrity, passion, connection, optimism, self-confidence, communicates very well, is respectful and never reacts to negative situations.”
Health Department Director Patricia Charles-Heathers said she has had the pleasure of working closely with Wheatt-Delancy, and is confident she’s the right person for the job.
“She is a deep thinker and planner and is always one step ahead,” Charles-Heathers said. “She took on this leadership role during one of the toughest times and she has dealt with everything that has come her way as a true champion.”
Wheatt-Delancy said she is excited to settle into the formal director role, calling the appointment a privilege.
“It’s an honor to carry out the mission of the community health center movement to ensure every member of our community has access to quality affordable care,” she said. “I’m living out my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
Wheatt-Delancy was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, known as the site of the notorious 40-year “Tuskegee Experiment” targeting Black men and their families in the name of furthering research on syphilis.
Wheatt-Delancy called the study, “a stain on our medical system,” and one that has led African American residents to distrust the broader healthcare system.
“Even now. We have made great strides but our nation is unsettled,” she said, suffering from an ingrained racism across every level of government and society.
“We hear, during COVID-19, that we are all in this together, but we are not having the same experience. COVID-19 has highlighted consistent health inequities,” she said. “I am committed to eliminating those disparities.”
Commissioners said the appointment sets them at ease.
“From the very first time you and I met, I felt confidence in your ability,” said Commissioner Jesica Vega Pederson.
“Thank you to the community health council for making such an excellent choice,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. “I appreciate the depth of your commitment and your understanding that healthcare is about eradicating health inequities.”
“Thank you for stepping up,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann. “I know my fellow board members will celebrate and support your efforts and we are so grateful you have stepped up during this time.”