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Regional Interests

Almost all staff quit Curry County Public Health, OHA assumes services

Curry County Commissioner Court Boice discusses transferring public heath services to the state during the board's April 16 meeting.
Curry County Commissioner Court Boice discusses transferring public heath services to the state during the board's April 16 meeting.

Editors’ note: Since this story published, OPB public media partner Jefferson Public Radio received information that conflicts with information from Curry County commissioners and Sheriff John Ward.

Commissioner Christopher Paasch told JPR that the department’s employees quit after they received word that their salaries would decrease. That information was corroborated by Ward in a public meeting on April 16, then confirmed by Commissioner Court Boice in an email with JPR.

Since the story’s publication, former employee Heather Serna contacted JPR for a correction. Serna says she resigned from her position as Women, Infants and Children nutrition coordinator after she received a pay increase. She says her salary didn’t play into her decision to leave.

“I left my position as the WIC coordinator because we had an unqualified public health administrator and pretty much no support from the county with public health,” she says.

Serna says no other employees were due to receive a pay decrease. Rather, she and her two other colleagues had become overwhelmed with running their programs while also having to conduct services related to COVID-19, including contact tracing.

When asked about the conflicting information, Boice said he would defer to the former employees who worked for the public health department .

He added later by email: “However, I don’t think it was because of the money. There is no ‘toxic’ environment here and that claim is invalid.”

Paasch didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

The following story has been updated:

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Curry County is transferring its public health services to the state after nearly all of the department’s staff quit.

The board of commissioners voted 2-1 on Friday to disband the county’s health department. The vote allows the Oregon Health Authority to assume control of providing COVID-19 services, business health inspections, its drinking water program, and its nutrition program for women and children.

Only one other county — Wallowa County — has chosen to transfer its public health authority to OHA in the past, which it voted to do in 2018.

Curry County’s public health department has been working with a bare-bones staff for the last few weeks. As of April 12, it had just one remaining staffer, who was then in charge of all COVID-19 services — including contact tracing and vaccination efforts.

The Oregon Health Authority sent a letter to the county on April 8 announcing its intentions to take charge of its public health services. It says the county isn’t conducting contact tracing or reportable disease investigations, providing reproductive health services, or conducting health inspections at restaurants and businesses “because there are no staff.”

“The county has been provided funds to perform these functions though it has failed to submit the required fiscal reports which would allow OHA to understand how the state’s money is being spent,” the letter reads.

Commissioner Christopher Paasch voted against relinquishing services to the state.

“I don’t think a little rural county in Southern Oregon is going to get the amount of attention that much closer and more populated counties are going to receive,” Paasch told JPR.

Public Health Administrator Sherrié Ward is the county’s only staff member left in the health department. Her husband, Curry County Sheriff John Ward, spoke at the commissioners meeting on Friday.

Ward said he thought the county should have kept its services in-house.

“I want the public to know: there was no reason for you guys to act this quick on a letter from the state, which it did give us an option to respond to them by this afternoon, but you went ahead and voted to give it away,” he said. “It just does not make sense.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting