Mary Jo Vernon reflects on her 23-year tenure
ary Jo Vernon is careful to point out that the biggest challenge of her career, while often overwhelming, is not responsible for her recent retirement revelation.
“There comes a time.to step down,” she said, after 23 years as Platte County Health Department director, the 15 months of which has been dominated by managing the effects of COVID-19.
While the position, in which she’s responsible for the well-being of 100,000 county residents and managing a budget of more than $3 million already was monumental, the global pandemic’s effects especially were challenging, she said during a Monday telephone interview. The interview was in response to Vernon’s recently-announced plans to retire at the close of 2021.
During COVID’s most infectious months, the virus caused a dizzying array of planning and coordinating, when health officials were unsure how to proceed in order to mitigate consequences. The department normally is abuzz with a long list of services from health education to immunization clinics and other health care services, many for those who struggle to afford them in the public marketplace, Vernon said.
“It (COVID) totally overtook my job responsibilities,” she said, and the positions of the nearly 50 employees, including area managers, that she supervises. Normal duties were put aside while she and her staff worked 60- to 70-hour weeks for several months, she said. Those days, which began in early morning and stretched late most nights, were a flurry of informational and brainstorming sessions with health care officials from area cities, counties and states and even federal groups such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), she said.
Vernon hired nine additional staff members and had several health care workers on call to conduct contact tracing to speak with those who’d been exposed and disease investigators who contacted those with positive test results.
Following sessions with other officials at all levels of government, the staff often met with the county department’s five-member board of directors to make final decisions on which strategies to employ to limit the virus’s impact.
“I was not making decisions in isolation,” she said, crediting her board members with being the backbone of managing the crisis. Decisions included issuing county-wide mask mandates, closing schools and all businesses not considered “essential.” But those announcements often were followed by criticism and even outrage by some Platte County residents who balked at the inconvenience of wearing masks in public, parents faced with working while also providing childcare while schools were closed and business owners who objected to being classified as “non-essential.”
First hired as nursing supervisor at the department in 1997, Vernon was quickly promoted to acting director when the then-director retired. By 1998, she was officially named director of the department.
“I have felt honored and privileged to serve the citizens of Platte County in this role,” she said. In retirement, Vernon and her husband, of 11 years, Mickey Vernon, who live in St. Joseph, plan to travel, camp and spend more time with family, including the couple’s six grandchildren.
As a parent of four adult children, Vernon said she understands how her department’s decisions about schools created a difficult situation for parents and also empathized with business owners who argued their business was “essential” to the livelihoods of themselves and their employees.
“I understand both sides,” she said. Therefore, Vernon and her staff worked to patiently offer information about COVID’s highly contagious nature and often-devastating health effects. While she and her staff greatly appreciated the Platte County residents who contacted the department to thank them for establishing boundaries to keep them safe, others reacted in anger. She does not harbor hard feelings toward those who disagreed and understands their need to “blame somebody.”
For the first time in her career, she said, “people started attending board meetings, many virtually, to air their concerns.”
While no other health issue was as difficult to manage, Vernon said a few others also have presented huge challenges. One example was one Platte County family’s struggles with “monkey pox,” a highly contagious disease related to smallpox, which the department eventually learned stemmed from a pet shipped from overseas with other animals, one of which was infected. Vernon and her staff, along with outside agencies such as the CDC, WHO and law enforcement, resolved the issue by taking steps to mitigate the spread of the disease (the family, also infected, eventually recovered.)
Vernon said she’s most proud of two new programs launched under her watch as director, designed to assist the county’s struggling residents. While many Platte County residents are “affluent,” she said the county has “pockets of poverty that ebb and flow with the economy.” Vernon said her early experience as a single mother of three children who worked multiple jobs, including nights while her elementary school-aged children were sleeping (she hired a sitter for overnight stays), gave her valuable first-hand insight.
“I felt like I was just keeping my head above water,” she said of that era.
The programs include a Back-to-School Fair, which offers free services for school-aged children, such as haircuts, hygiene packets (shampoo, soap, toothpaste and brushes) and school supplies. It’s important that these children “start the school year just like all the other kids,” she said, adding that, as a woman of faith, she believes her situation was not a coincidence.
“God was marinating me, shaping and molding my heart so I would have the passion to reach out and help these families,” she said.
Another program, Day of Hope, is a winter event that supplies cold-weather gear, including coats, hats, gloves, underwear and blankets. Both have gained government classification as charitable events and rely on community individuals and businesses to offer donations of items and money, she said.
The department’s services, currently offered from two locations (Platte City and Parkville), soon will be consolidated to a building at 110th Street and Ambassador in Kansas City, Vernon said.
The 24,000-square-foot building, a former Citicorp daycare center, will offer ample space for the department’s array of services, from an immunizations clinic to a physician and nurse practitioner office offering care to those who are uninsured or rely on Medicaid. The building also will house programs such as Women Infants Children (WIC) while also providing room for administrative offices (environmental health and epidemiology and educational classroom areas for community health education staff.)
The building also will provide a much-needed spacious meeting room. Board members have been meeting in a small room she described as “no larger than most people’s dining rooms.”
Renovations to the building were put on hold during the frenzy caused by COVID. But the lessened virus activity has allowed Vernon and the board to begin focusing on readying the building for department occupancy. Officials currently are advertising for a general contractor, purchasing furniture and acquiring City of Kansas City permits for the improvements.
“It’s going to make my time here go fast,” she said, adding that her retirement and an open house event to show off the facility may occur concurrently. But she acknowledged a shortage of building materials following production lapses during COVID’s height might cause construction delays.
The department’s board of directors currently is advertising for candidates (see ad on page 10) to take over the director’s chair and hope to have a new director hired by this fall, allowing her time to train a new department director. Vernon said she’s already making a list of job duties to present to her replacement. The new director will be charged with managing programs that prop up Platte County’s future projected residential and business growth and an ever-increasing budget to fund current and new services.
While COVID infection numbers have dropped greatly following vaccinations of about 54 percent of Platte County residents 18 and older, Vernon said she has concerns that this fall, which typically launches the cold and flu season, also may bring with it increasing numbers of COVID infections.
“They (federal disease specialists) have said it’s here to stay,” she said. “It will just be something we deal with like the flu or pneumonia,” she said. “We’re pleased with that number but continue to offer daily vaccinations at the Parkville office and we look forward to increasing that percentage number. Our goal is to reach herd immunity, a higher percentage (75 to 80 percent) like a circle of protection around the community so the virus has less opportunity to infect others,” she said. Her department also is responsible for vaccinating about 31,000 Missourians.
Platte County vaccination totals rank fifth among counties in Missouri counties, she said. Vernon said while she’s pleased with those vaccinated, more is needed.
“The reality is there’s a large percentage of people everywhere who have trepidation about the vaccine. It’s a novel virus that we’ve never seen before. As we live it, we’re seeing more factual information we can get out to the public,” she said. Some “didn’t seem to grasp that and it’s fanning the distrust,” she said. This situation will create one of the largest hurdles for her successor. “Those with vaccine hesitancy are ingrained in that belief,” she said. “What is a methodology that’s going to change their minds and educate people so they can make an informed decision?”