MHOA Spotlight – Sigalle Reiss
By Abby Faria
By Abby Faria
MHOA President Sigalle Reiss is also the Public Health Director for Norwood, MA. I was fortunate to get to interview her on a number of topics. In our discussion, we talked about how she originally got involved in the field of public health, her responsibilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and her current roles as the president of the MHOA and Public Health Director for Norwood, MA.
In college, Director Reiss studied anthropology and sociology because she was “interested in how societies form and how we act as individuals within them.” She traveled to Cameroon where she completed a field study on how bushmeat markets contributed to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. She noted that she went there in the 1990s while there was a lot of denial surrounding the HIV/AIDS crisis. This experience helped spur her interest in the link between societies and how diseases develop and spread within them; however, she didn’t exactly know where to go next to keep studying topics from this perspective. Even though she is passionate about public health, at the time she didn’t exactly know that there was a field of study dedicated to this. One of her friends recommended that she study public health.
Director Reiss states that her role as the Director of Public Health is “very broad,” explaining how she interacts with lots of people in communications, including those who run public pools, summer camps, and coalitions for mental health and substance abuse. When she first started studying public health, she was particularly interested in pursuing a career in international health. However, as she learned and worked in the field, she learned that global health efforts are essentially “the same practices you use in your own backyard.” She explains that “the idea of traveling and being a disease hunter sounds amazing when you’re young,” but as she gained education and experience, her appreciation for working closely with her own community coalitions and collaborations grew. Dir. Reiss explains that international health efforts typically involve hiring local community members to carry out the work on the ground because “the value of trust and local people in communities is huge.”
Dir. Reiss loves that she gets to work closely with and know her community well, including what makes it “tick,” and using that to improve health. She says that understanding the history and politics of a community can be very helpful for developing public health plans because every area has a unique culture. “It is still a lot of trial and error,” she admits, explaining that “programs need to be tailored to specific community needs,” as one community may respond well to a new public health intervention, but another might have concerns about it based on their different priorities.
Over the past several months the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over as the primary focus of the Norwood departments efforts and has left little time for Dir. Reiss to do much else. The pandemic has put a significant hold on her departments other projects, such as food safety efforts, substance abuse programs, and programs that are run through schools have been put on a total halt as schools have been shut down for safety.
She hopes going forward, that one of the after-effects of the pandemic will be a greater appreciation for public health in general, and that funding public health is important so that we can have a system that is prepared for any eventuality. She also hopes that people will understand that “it’s individual actions that add up to protect the community”. Wearing face masks, social distancing and getting vaccinated are all ways in which we can protect our communities.
Dir. Reiss values MHOA’s regular training for members because she believes that it is crucial that everyone keeps up with changes in science and practice, noting the annual MHOA conference as a particular asset. Since COVID-19 MHOA has helped her to connect with public health professionals across the state as they collectively have worked on responses to the pandemic. She also believes that not all MHOA members may realize how much MHOA advocates for local public health, as well as offering training and networking opportunities. She has also observed over the years how MHOAs messaging system has changed and grown as the field of public health has changed. As MHOA looks to keep modernizing its system, she believes that the organization will be essential to the future of public health in the Commonwealth and an integral part in the local public health system.