The Livingston County Board of Commissioners conducted a series of interviews with the four candidates running for the health officer position. The search for a health director has been a lengthy process. The commissioners drafted a list of questions and addressed them to candidates individually. In order to ensure a fair and consistent platform, all candidates were more or less asked the same questions by the Board.
Matt Bolang has been serving as interim health director since the retirement of Dianne McCormick in July. Bolang has a bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources from the University of Michigan, a master’s in Public Administration from Central Michigan, and 25 years of experience in the Livingston County Health Department. One of his primary goals is to get the community “back to where we were pre-Covid.”
Two years later, the topic of masks and quarantines in schools remains a point of contention, despite the fact that none of the Livingston County school districts have any protocol currently in place. Wes Nakagiri asked Bolang if he’d like to address the matter.
“What we know today is not what we knew back then,” Bolang said. He also pointed out that, comparatively speaking, Livingston County’s COVID-19 protocol was much more lenient than other counties. Bolang concluded by saying that, while he was not directly involved in that particular decision-making process, the department as a whole was “making decisions the best we could to keep our community safe.”
Similarly, Doug Helzerman asked Bolang to explain his stance on “parental ability to say no to vaccines.” Bolang reminded the Board that all parents in the community are already offered that right. Vaccinations are not mandatory per the Livingston County Health Department, and, should any parent object to their child receiving vaccinations, there are waivers in place and channels to navigate. Neither parents nor children are penalized on the basis of this decision.
Helzerman described the questions directed at Bolang as “somewhat adversarial.” As a result, he used his final question to ask Bolang about his efforts to ease the effects of COVID in the county and encourage business.
The health department provided a template for businesses early on to identify best practices for maintaining safe environments for employees and customers. In addition, Bolang noted that the department used some of its own COVID-19 grant money to offset the detriment to local businesses. Approximately $350,000 was given to local restaurants in 2020.
In addressing the loss of businesses due to the Pandemic, Bolang added that “we’ve been a little bit isolated in Livingston County… not that we didn’t lose some restaurants, but we’ve had more licensed restaurants now than we did three years ago.”
Kiran Brar previously served as the Food and Safety Specialist for Manitoba, where she oversaw the water and food inspection throughout the province.
She also worked for ten years as a health inspector in rural areas of Alberta, specializing in infection prevention control. Here, her primary duty was working with facilities in order to develop a series of plans in case of outbreaks. Brar has a master’s in Public Health with a focus on food safety.
Doug Helzerman expressed concern that an experience in Canadian health affairs did not necessarily provide adequate background for one looking to serve Livingston County. Brar pointed out that her previous work allowed her to become familiar with FDA and CDC guidelines. However, in a later response to Commissioner Zajac, she did admit that she had no prior insight into Livingston County affairs, nor had she done any preliminary research.
One theme that has characterized the health officer discussion from the beginning is whether or not the community would benefit from having a health officer with a background in medicine. In addressing this, Brar noted that the objective and role of a medical professional is very different from a health officer.
“For a medical professional, they’re more about end results, they’re there to fix an illness,” Brar elaborated. Her experience as an administrator, on the other hand, has been focused on prevention as compared to treatment.
“If I had to focus on one area of public health, it’d be infection prevention and control,” Brar explained. “The numbers are going up, and there’s [sic] so many emerging diseases… Covid hit us hard, and we need to be better prepared for something else.” COVID-19 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) were chief among the infections cited.
Barbara Conn has been a frequent attendee of County Commissioners’ meetings in recent months, often speaking in opposition to vaccines, masks, mandates, and federal health guidelines. Her philosophy is based on individual liberties, and her methodology is based on what she refers to as a “critical thinking and common sense” approach. This has earned the support of Moms for Liberty and other advocates for “medical freedom.”
Conn has 20+ years of experience as a registered nurse, working in pediatrics and hematology in Oakland and Wayne Counties. She also claims to own and operate a home care and consulting company, though she didn’t provide a name for her business.
Conn is primarily focused on the issues that arose from the COVID-19 Pandemic. When asked, she stated that she had no opinion on the structure or management of the health department and that her budgeting experience was minimal. She also declined to cite members of the community she’d built report with, a question that was asked of all candidates to identify their networking abilities and connections.
Mitchell Zajac asked Conn to discuss what steps she would take to ensure effective and efficient management of the health department, while also facilitating collaboration. While Conn didn’t outline a plan for such collaborative efforts, she did note that “everyone who works in the same department– and even in adjoining departments– should work together and collaborate with one another.” Zajac also asked Conn to address the top two emerging issues facing Livingston County, to which she replied that she viewed mental health as a problem.
On the personnel side of things, Conn asserted that, at one point in time, she had direct or indirect supervision over 100-200 employees in various positions.
“My way of teaching or supervising other individuals is through education,” Conn told the Board. “When I’ve taught [an employee] what they were doing wrong, and what the regulations are, they seemed to be very thankful. So I give a lot of leadway [sic] to people.”
Instead of identifying one area of public health she’d like to focus on, Conn said that she’d simply focus on “whatever the community needs.”
Thomas Latchney is an environmental health specialist in the Infection Prevention and Epidemiology Department at the University of Michigan. In this position, he’s worked to create and implement policy and procedures on water management. Namely, this protocol is designed to prevent the spread of water-borne illnesses in the hospital environment.
Latchney recently attended the National Infection Control and Epidemiology Conference, educating his fellows on water pathogen prevention. Prior to this, Latchney worked at the Livingston County Health Department as an environmental sanitarian. In this capacity, his duties revolved around wastewater disposal, groundwater contamination, and residential drinking water.
Nakagiri asked Latchney what skills, experiences, and education he’d use in order to assess the validity of varying– and often contradictory– claims in the realm of health.
“I really do think that the way to validate what you’re reading is to really look at the peer-reviewed, scientific literature,” Latchney explained, “and really look into the methods of how these studies are done.”
As for the continued debate over vaccines, particularly those administered to children, Latchney expressed concern over the “fewer or rarer effects of vaccination,” notably pointing toward heart problems or allergic reactions.
The myth of cardiovascular ailments has been a common one, with many professionals referencing myocarditis in children as a key talking point in anti-vaccination rhetoric. However, in a statement released by the Chief of Pediatric Cardiology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, such ailments are a result of COVID-19, not the vaccine. The CDC verified this claim: over a 10-month period, patients with COVID-19 had 16 times the risk for myocarditis as those who didn’t. Little research has been done into the correlation between vaccines and allergic reactions thus far.
“With the rate at which young people who get Covid being so low, and also the possible negative health effects of a vaccine, I don’t think that should be a priority of Livingston County to encourage vaccination in the 0-18 age range,” Latchney continued. Instead, he proposed that any vaccine education efforts be focused on immunocompromised individuals.
All candidates were consistent in their responses to three questions.
Martin Smith asked each applicant what populations they perceived to be most vulnerable and in need of protection, to which the reply was seniors and children.
Jay Gross brought up the idea of civil penalties for parents who disobeyed mandates for vaccines or quarantine procedures. Candidates across the board were against such measures.
Jay Drick also asked each candidate about their thoughts on adhering to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and the State of Michigan Constitution. None of the candidates objected to this, though it remains uncertain as to why Drick felt compelled to invoke either document. Neither state nor federal Constitution establishes any particular precedent for health officers, health departments, or general practices.
The Board of Commissioners will formally vote on the appointment of a new health director on November 14th.