Houston County’s new Public Health Director, Mary Marchel PHOTO: CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD
Houston County’s new Public Health Director, Mary Marchel PHOTO: CRAIG MOORHEAD/SPRING GROVE HERALD

"My passion for years has always been public health," Mary Marchel said last week.

As Houston County's newest department head, Marchel took the reins at public health/nursing on Feb. 10. She began her career as hospital nurse in Brainerd, gaining eight year's worth of experience before moving to Bemidji in 1985, where she joined the Beltrami County Department of Public Health. Within two years, she was asked to become director of that department. In 2009, Beltrami County combined human services and public health, and Marcel was asked to consolidate the departments. At that point, she supervised approximately 140 full-time employees. Marchel remained at that post until accepting her present position.

What made you decide to come to Houston County?

"I was really interested in finding just a public health chair. The attraction of just doing public health was pretty wonderful. Also, you have a beautiful area here, in the bluff country.

You've had about a month to evaluate the needs of Houston County. What do you see as key issues right now?

"First of all, I'd like to say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the staff (here). They are superb. They have years of expertise and they understand service excellence. They are very passionate about the work they do... They know why they come to work every day, and realize that what we're about is creating partnerships in health.

"As far as chronic longstanding things, there are a couple. Mental health issues are prevalent everywhere. We see it in our jails, our young people, and it's a persistent problem with our elderly population. We live in a climate where we don't get enough sunshine, and that's part of it. Especially for the elderly, we frequently see depression.

"It's important to have mental health providers that are accessible, that we have transportation, getting people to and from caregivers. And it's important just to be able to get people out - for our seniors, for example.

"Another longstanding risk is inactivity. We know what inactivity does in regard to heart disease, diabetes. What can we do to help our people think about becoming more active? And not just thinking about it, but actually becoming more active?

"We've got this beautiful area with lots of walking paths and trails. We're going to be talking about what we can do to get our population moving.

Looking down the road, what are the emerging challenges for your department?

"I've been asked to serve on the frac sand study committee and I will. I am not going to speak too much to that just yet, because I am a learner. But I will be representing the perspective of public health. Trust me. That is the pair of glasses that I'll be looking through.

"An emerging problem is the rate of Lyme's Disease in our area. After meeting with the state epidemiologist assigned to the southeast region, I'm concerned with what I was told. We are beginning to notice an impressive trend of vector-borne disease, in particular for Houston County residents. Looking at the data per capita, we have a really large number (54 per 100,000 persons).

"The good news about that is the fact that our clinicians are recognizing it, testing for it, diagnosing it, and treating for it. From a public health standpoint, we need to see more information getting to the public about how to protect themselves. Prevention is important... We will be coming up with strategies and efforts to address that for Houston County residents.

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Health, deer ticks are the principle bearer of the bacteria which causes Lyme's disease. Especially during May-June and in the fall, the insects will actively seek to attach themselves to hosts. Using a repellent containing DEET is recommended, along with creating a barrier to ticks by tucking pants into socks or boots. By wearing light-colored clothing, ticks can be spotted and removed before they can bite. Persons who frequent tick-infested areas are also urged to check and re-check frequently for "hitchhikers." It takes at least 24 hours for an attached tick to infect a person, so removal beforehand can prevent the disease from taking hold.

"Another issue is e-cigarettes," Marchel added. "It's still somewhat controversial in that we don't yet have long-term studies. Nonetheless, I believe that we have lots of reasons to be alarmed because we're seeing an incredible increase in use among middle school students.

"Some of the things that the industry is doing with flavors like cotton candy or blueberry, and some of the cartridges themselves, which have pictures that look like cartoon characters, makes you wonder. Who are they marketing this stuff to?

"We will be bringing a content expert from the American Lung Association to our joint board of health meeting with Fillmore County later in March... .We don't know yet what the effects of long-term exposure are, or even short-term exposure, for that matter. But you see vaporizing in theaters, restaurants.

"There are hearings at the state legislature about aligning the e-cigarette policy to the same standard as Minnesota smoke-free legislation. From a public health standpoint, allowing them to be used anywhere and everywhere is just not acceptable.

Marchel invited residents to an open house which her department will host on April 29 from 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. at the Houston County Community Services Building.

"Think of us as a potential partner," she said. "I think people forget about us sometimes. We have years of experience and expertise, and we are here to serve the public.

"We'll have lots of information, including some things on vector-borne (disease), and we'll be showcasing some of our current initiatives with regards to the state health improvement grant that we have.

As far as future plans for the department, Marchel said that a recent "community needs assessment" is now under review, and a series of public meetings are planned to bring those results to residents.