By Abby Faria
Derek Fullerton has many responsibilities. Not only is he a father of two, but he serves as both the Director of Public Health and Chief Health Strategist for the Town of Middleton. Unsurprisingly, his day-to-day schedule has become even busier since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Managing the health department has always been a major task prior to the pandemic,” he says.
Now, his work is heavily focused on his role as the “Incident Commander.” Through the Federal Incident Command System (ICS), the Incident Commander (IC) has overall management responsibility for the pandemic. The ICS team for Middleton includes many other town departments and staff. In this position, Dir. Fullerton convenes the ICS team routinely as they navigate the COVID-19 response and collectively approach it to implement the best measures for the community. Dir. Fullerton is very thankful for his staff, particularly for his Public Health Nurse, Traci Mello, RN, MSN. “Traci has been a blessing to the department, to the residents, and to me! She has the care and compassion that Public Health Nurses are molded with.”
The Middleton Health Department has worked hard to keep daily programs running with the added responsibilities of the pandemic response. Dir. Fullerton explained that as a small department, “we can’t really turn anywhere or to anyone else to handle a lot of responsibilities because there is a high level of training and experience needed to complete a typical day-to-day response in public health. Therefore, we continue to work extra hours, nights, and weekends to get the pandemic and non-pandemic responsibilities completed!”
Due to the need for social distancing during the pandemic, some in-person programs had to be shelved. Many of these were prevention-focused, including interior building flu vaccination clinics. However, “due to the pandemic, we shifted to our first ever outside drive-through flu vaccination clinic, and it was a huge success! This change has helped us evaluate future ways of doing things and moving outside the box we sometimes get accustomed to.”
Dir. Fullerton likes working in local public health because it gives him the opportunity to work on a wide range of issues, in addition to water and sanitation issues, which initially led him to the field of public health. Dir. Fullerton attended the University of New Hampshire where he obtained a dual degree in environmental health science and biology. He started designing water and wastewater systems after graduating because he really liked the aspect of water quality and pollution removal, expressing that “access to safe, clean water is a major component of public health.”
Growing up in the footprints of his father and grandfather also drew him towards serving the residents in local government, as both of them were local municipal workers within their community. Dir. Fullerton wanted a job that would help provide him a good work-life balance. He finds that working locally is beneficial because he can be close to his family while also having an impact on the community he lives in.
Dir. Fullerton’s favorite part of working in local health is getting to build relationships with those in his own town, explaining that he “gets to see a lot of faces” he knows. He views the department’s work as “the bridge-builder and connector” between private, public, and residential sectors. When he is out and about in public, people will recognize him and ask questions. Dir. Fullerton relishes the idea that he is able to “educate them, and ask questions, too, to become educated on their needs or inquiries.” He describes it as a very equal relationship, as opposed to a top-down one.
In addition to engaging with his residents, Director Fullerton has received numerous awards and completed impressive projects. In 2015, Dir. Fullerton was inducted as a Fellow of Public Health by the Boston University Local Public Health Institute. During his tenure as President of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association (2016-2017) and as a representative for the State Association of County and City Health Officials (SACCHO), Dir. Fullerton designed a twelve-step opioid and alcohol recovery toolkit for local municipalities, the nation’s first local government “Opioid Toolkit.” Dir. Fullerton notes the MHOA was fundamental in helping with the toolkit, which has been so successful it has been implemented in other states, including New Jersey and Connecticut. Dir. Fullerton was honored to speak at Yale University and Rutgers University, which were assisting their local health associations of Connecticut and New Jersey to implement the toolkit.
As the SACCHO representative, he annually made trips on behalf of MHOA, to Senators and Representatives at Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. to advocate on public health topics such as funding, opioid programs and policy, and emergency preparedness. In 2018, Dir. Fullerton was awarded the John D. Crowley Award by the Massachusetts Health Officers Association for his contribution to the growth and success of the MHOA through outstanding leadership and extraordinary service. He currently holds certifications as a Certified Health Officer, Registered Environmental Health Specialist, and Registered Sanitarian.
Dir. Fullerton appreciates MHOA for “always leading and assisting in local public health efforts,” noting that the organization brings its members together and helps foment strong relationships among them, especially through professional development and public health advocacy. He feels that MHOA provides an essential foundation for public health efforts in the state. Looking forward, he “sees MHOA continuing to support local public health, continuing to advocate for public health, and being an association that supports new leaders in public health”
Outside of his job, Faith is Dir. Fullerton’s top priority. He is very involved with his church, currently serving as the Chairman of the Elders. He prioritizes spending time with wife, two kids, and his German Shepherd. He also loves sports, especially playing ice hockey and fishing. The blessings and silver linings through the pandemic are “what keeps me going,” he says.
Dir. Fullerton hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting a stronger spotlight on public health. “As a prevention department, we often go unrecognized,” he says, but he hopes that through the difficulties of this pandemic people will learn to understand “not just what public health is, but what public health does.” In return for this increased understanding he hopes to see a much needed increase in staffing and funding for local health departments, and an increase in interest in public health among students.