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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 3:35 am | Fair 49º


Tuberculosis Not the Only Challenge for New Santa Barbara County Health Officer

Dr. Charity Dean already familiar with job and its demands, including TB, hepatitis C and serving the community

Dr. Charity Dean, pictured with Dr. Takashi Wada, director of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, has been named the county’s health officer after a year and a half as the interim officer. Click to view larger
Dr. Charity Dean, pictured with Dr. Takashi Wada, director of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, has been named the county’s health officer after a year and a half as the interim officer. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

Dr. Charity Dean describes her job as county health officer as one that’s “in the weeds and in the clouds,” meaning she’s still part of the nitty-gritty of working with patients as well as developing policy for the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.

It means that on the same day that she’s deciding on the dosage for a patient with tuberculosis, she could also be meeting with government and health officials to determine how to best prevent the spread of the disease on a large scale.

Last week, the Public Health Department announced that Dean, who has been the county’s interim county health officer since January 2014, has been chosen to fill the role permanently. In the position, Dean will oversee all of the agency’s medical aspects.

Dean was selected after Dr. Takashi Wada, who previously held the role in addition to his job as the county’s public health director, took over temporary leadership of the county Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services Department in 2012.

After a new ADMHS director was hired, Dean stayed in the interim health officer role.

About half of California’s 58 counties have a separate county health officer, with the rest combining the role with that of the public health director.

One of the reasons the county has opted to keep the jobs separate is the sheer workload Dean has taken on.

About 60 percent of her time is spent on preventing the spread of tuberculosis in the county, with the rest dedicated to tracking other communicable diseases, including any infectious disease outbreaks.

Santa Barbara County has seen a resurgence in tuberculosis cases over the past four years, with numbers higher than the state average — on par with Los Angeles and San Francisco.

While it’s unclear exactly why the increase is happening, Dean is reaching out to primary-care doctors to treat people with latent tuberculosis, which has not been as much of a focus in years past.

“We are shifting gears from treating the tuberculosis to preventing cases,” she said.

The effort requires Dean to pull out her Rolodex to contact doctors she knows.  

Dean is volunteer president-elect of the Central Coast Medical Association, which boasts more than 700 physician members. She’s been in Santa Barbara for 10 years and did her medical residency at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

“A lot of what I do is a relationship with the community,” she explained.

Earlier this year, the decision fell to Dean to close the offices of Dr. Allen Thomashefsky after the discovery that a former patient may have acquired hepatitis C from an unsafe injection at the local medical office.

Further investigation identified seven patients with a new diagnosis of hepatitis C, and Dean personally contacted those who tested positive for the infection.

Staff did an inspection, and later told Dean what they had found. She decided she wanted to conduct a second inspection herself, confirming that the office needed to be closed.

The Public Health Department is now working with three state epidemiologists to examine medical records of more than 1,300 patients from the clinic’s past seven years. Authorities are concerned that more people could have been infected with hepatitis.

“It’s like detective work,” she said.

Dean said she wants the community to know that she is at their service.

“I work for the county, which means I am paid with tax dollars and that is something I don’t take lightly,” she said. “My job is to be of service to the community.

“Sometimes government gets a bad reputation for not doing that. I see my role as serving the people who pay my salary.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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