By Mingrui Wei
Claude Jacob currently serves as the Chief Public Health Officer at the Cambridge Public Health Department (CPHD). His responsibilities include overseeing population health initiatives, as well as emergency preparedness and response. The department also runs a number of regulatory functions that support the city’s tuberculosis clinic, the school health nurses, and communicates health-related issues to residents of Cambridge.
The COVID pandemic affected the whole world and the city of Cambridge was no exception. Much of the department was impacted with the majority of work shifting to address the COVID emergency for the past 15 months. In order to balance the COVID response efforts and the usual responsibilities of the department, Jacob spent more time supporting staff, residents, and the community partners through this unprecedented time. In doing this, Jacob provided his staff time to be available to serve residents while being responsive to all the changes as a result of the pandemic.
The major challenge during the pandemic was managing staff burnout. Restrictions forced most of the staff to work remotely, while the department still ran a number of on-site activities with limited staff, like flu clinics, COVID testing tents as well as vaccination clinics. CPHD staff adjusted quickly to balance working remotely and running different clinics and outreach activities to support area residents. There was a lot of angst and fatigue experienced by the team but with the constant effort of the staff, Cambridge is now on the way back to some sense of normalcy with the businesses, schools, and lives, explained Jacob. Reflecting on this most unusual experience, Jacob expressed that there may be ongoing challenges in the future as COVID has exposed and exacerbated a number of social vulnerabilities across communities like housing, food, or jobs.
Masters-trained in public health and working on completing his doctoral degree, Jacob has been in the field of public health for almost twenty-five years now. He has worked in different states with a wide range of experiences of running community health programs, mostly in cities, and even at a state-level governmental agency. When speaking of his favorite aspect of working in public health, he says “It’s an exciting field where there’s never a dull moment.” COVID has been a most unprecedented experience that revealed many inequities and the need to pay closer attention to the disproportionate burden inflicted among communities of color and vulnerable populations. “That’s why we want to make sure that we do a better job aligning programs as well as policies that address the legacy of institutional racism and its impact in our communities.” Says Jacob.
Having served in Cambridge for 14 years, Jacob is ready to start his next adventure in Texas in July as the public health director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District (SAMHD) which includes the City of San Antonio as well as Bexar County. His work will focus on addressing health needs of the city/county while supporting key stakeholders and their adjustment to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of future work, Jacob shares that he seeks to address the burden of chronic and communicable diseases while reinforcing the value of investing in the public health infrastructure, especially for a big city like San Antonio. This includes a focus on violence, healthy eating/active living, access to care and mental health. Jacob explains that working in public health is about enhancing key partnerships with hospital systems, neighborhood-based partners, public safety, and schools, to name a few, and he is looking forward to fostering these critical collaborations in San Antonio.
Recalling his experience in Cambridge, Jacob cannot speak highly enough about his fantastic team and colleagues whom he considers his “extended family.” He says that it’s his support systems as well as the energy, passion, and commitment demonstrated by staff that makes it possible for him to be a “public servant” for the City of Cambridge, which he describes as a “magical kingdom.” Although it was a difficult year with the pandemic, Jacob was proud of the accomplishments the city achieved with controlling the spread of COVID and higher vaccination rates. Jacob also expressed his appreciation for the incredible network provided by MHOA and the Mass Public Health Association which helped anchor professional networks which amplified the required advocacy to support cities/towns across the Commonwealth during these most unprecedented times.
“I’m flattered and honored to be recruited to lead the SAMHD at this critical yet exciting time” Jacob says. “It feels like the right time to make this transition for our family and for the city, especially given the experiences of this past year. The COVID pandemic has forced me to reflect and reassess the aspects of my personal and professional life that need to be recalibrated and I believe that I am well-prepared for this next chapter in my career.”
Jacob will continue on his journey as a public health practitioner and looks forward to sharing his insights and experiences with the city of San Antonio. The hot weather, the food, the river walk, and the change of scenery await him there. “It’s an exciting opportunity to work with an energized team and the leadership there, just like when we arrived in Cambridge 14 years ago. I’ve had a good run here in Massachusetts and have an even greater appreciation for the talent, passion and resilience of communities here in the Bay State. Be well. Be safe. I will really miss this place.”