Jay Becker took over as Ashtabula County Health Commissioner earlier this year, after long-time Health Commissioner Ray Saporito retired.
Becker, who took over for Saporito in May, has a long history in public health. He worked with the Red Cross before starting work with the Ashtabula County Health Department in 2002, he said.
“I’ve always had a knack of wanting to work to help individuals in need,” Becker said.
With the Red Cross, he helped families that had been burned out of their homes or down on their luck, he said.
After 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, public health added an emergency preparedness branch, Becker said.
“I thought it was a good fit and I went with it and I didn’t look back,” Becker said.
There was a lot of collaboration at the start, Becker said. “One agency can’t do it by themself,” Becker said. “That’s one thing I tell you, from day one, I can tell you, and even today, the thing about Ashtabula County … the collaboration when I started here, it was phenomenal,” he added later.
The groups in Ashtabula County worked together well. “People here, they reach out, they work together,” Becker said. “We know that we need each other to make things work.”
After working for the Geauga County Heath Department for several years, Becker returned to the Ashtabula County Health Department in 2016, and resumed his old position as Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and epidemiologist.
“In 2018 the administrator’s position opened up,” Becker said.
The administrator handles the financial and grant side of things, Becker said. “That’s a big piece of the administrative side of making this agency run, is the funding aspect.”
The experience of being administrator was valuable, he said.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, county agencies pulled together.
“We had that county (COVID-19) call, that would take place every Tuesday, early on,” Becker said. “And we had 100s of people who were part of that call, and all we had to do was reach out to different members and agencies. People were very interested in what was going on, and any way that they could help.”
The reports outlining the county’s COVID-19 situation at the beginning of July were some of the best that had been released.
“So our active cases for Ashtabula County (were) listed at 17,” Becker said. The previous report listed 28 cases, he said. “So the numbers keep going down, that is definitely a good sign,” he said.
The county’s vaccinate rate is not rising as much as Becker would like, he said.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, around 42.5 percent of county residents have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and the county recently passed 40 percent of residents fully vaccinated.
“That’s a very telling statistic, for me,” Becker said. Some states with low vaccination percentages are facing an outbreak of delta variant cases right now, he said. “They are currently reporting that anyone who is dying right now of COVID, are those who are unvaccinated,” Becker said.
There have been some delta variant COVID-19 cases in the county, but they have not taken off at this point, Becker said. “I hope we don’t see it, but I think if we’re going to see it, it’s going to be when the schools get back in session again,” he said.
“We listen to vaccination calls from the state, and every other health department is on these calls, and these go on a couple times a week,” Becker said. “The state is trying to give us ideas, other health departments are trying to put out ideas, everyone’s trying to do different things to get people vaccinated.”
Those who wanted to be vaccinated have been, Becker said. “Everyone else, ... even those who are on the fence anymore, they’re just not interested,” he said.
Becker said he didn’t know how to get those people interested in getting vaccinated until the pandemic affects them directly, and at that point it’s too late.
Public health has been neglected for years, Becker said. The Ashtabula County Health Department receives $13,000 per year from the state, he said. “That is a subsidy we receive on a yearly basis,” Becker said. “So we have to then reach out and get grants to help fund our programing.” The Ashtabula County Health Department’s vaccination, tobacco and emergency preparedness programs are grant funded, he said.
The Ashtabula County Health Department is currently going through an accreditation process that Becker likened to a process hospitals went through earlier in his career.
The county health department finished its site evaluation in April, and is awaiting the results, Becker said. The county health department had to submit hundreds of documents for accreditation, while dealing with the pandemic, he said.
“There’s just a lot of things I know the public’s not aware of,” Becker said. The health department has to pay $5,600 per year to participate in the program.