By Rana Rahmat
Life has been chaotic and overwhelming for the last several months, particularly for those who work in our local boards of health. I recently had a great conversation with one of these individuals in the field: Jayne Smith, a health agent working for both the Alford and Dalton boards of health.
At the start of 2020, Jayne was beginning her transition out of the public health field. However, once the pandemic began, her help was needed in towns like Alford and Dalton so Jayne’s course of action changed. Since then, Ms. Smith has been working with both towns, providing advice and assisting with policies and procedures. According to Jayne, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak her role dealt more with the “nuts and bolts” of public health such as inspections and septics and permitting. Now, the work is more focused on assisting her communities navigate the pandemic, especially since the local boards of health have had to navigate regulating businesses they had never regulated before.
Jayne’s first real awareness of public health was as a high school student when she read the book Outbreak. She then pursued a degree in environmental health and worked on designing septic systems for several years post-graduation after moving to Berkshire County. Coming from a family of educators, Ms. Smith welcomes supporting and educating others, particularly bringing the education role back to the world of public health.
We also had a chance to discuss how the pandemic has affected projects that Jayne was involved in since, like many others in public health, she too has seen interruptions to various initiatives. When the pandemic hit, the town of Dalton was in the midst of many projects including increasing recycling, focusing on the flavor ban on tobacco products, encouraging homeowners to perform T5 inspections prior to selling their homes, and strategizing ways of mitigating the opioid epidemic. Unfortunately, with the pandemic at the forefront of all our daily lives, it is “so easy to lose track of those initiatives” when day-to-day activities are constantly interrupted by COVID-19 related issues.
Eventually, the interruptions will subside and the initiatives can ramp up again. According to Jayne, the MHOA is well-poised in their role as an advocacy group for public health because of the relationships the organization maintains across the state. The MHOA specifically reached out to Berkshire County about three years ago and has since provided education and support for various initiatives. The organization continues to provide invaluable trainings, excellent speakers at their conferences, and offers a great deal of information on their website. One of the newer ways the MHOA has been able to assist counties such as Berkshire is by providing help through the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC) for public education campaigns.
Some of the current struggles facing local boards of health, according to Ms. Smith, include the inability to facilitate trainings on topics other than COVID-19 and lacking adequately trained “boots on the ground,” particularly in Western Massachusetts. As a result, some towns have had to team up during the pandemic to address their problems. These issues seem to be recurring themes for boards of health as they grapple with the pandemic. Ms. Smith reflected on the fact that the issues are partially due to towns underestimating what delivering quality public health actually costs, particularly in an emergency such as this. “We need public health systems that make sense” and some methods of alleviating the burden on local boards of health include towns working together and the Commonwealth taking on a bigger role in funding public health. What Jayne hopes for as an outcome of the pandemic is “that towns begin to realize how important the role [of public health] is” so they can put more focus and emphasis on identifying at-risk communities as well as how to reach out to them.
Like always, I could not end the interview without asking what she likes to do during her free time. Jayne lives on a farm that sells honey, eggs, and vermicompost and enjoys spending time with her hands in the earth, including recently planting a large amount of garlic. She tries to spend as much time as possible with her two teenagers before they leave home and enjoys participating in community activities.