Cape health center director retiring

Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Charlotte Craig

Back in 1975, a newly hired nurse, Charlotte Craig, set out to improve access to health care for all residents of Cape Girardeau County.

She was at the time one of two employees of the Cape County Nursing Service, back in the days when nobody had yet heard of HIV or H1N1 and there were no organized task forces for weather disasters or contagious disease outbreaks.

But much has changed since then. A look back over the career of Craig, now in its 37th year but coming to a close when she retires Sunday, shows a growth in public health programs and services that she and others at the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center hope can only continue.

"The health center was a pioneer of many things," Craig said recently during a joint interview with Jane Wernsman, the center's assistant director who will become director upon Craig's retirement. Wernsman is also a longtime employee of the county's public health service, with 23 years now on the books.

The county's nursing service, which operated out of various locations over the years until settling into the old public library building turned voter registration office next to the Common Pleas Courthouse in Cape Girardeau in 1976, was a small but effective operation mainly used for providing access to immunizations.

"I remember taking patients into a vault down there for privacy," Craig said. "It wasn't ideal, but that's just the way it was then."

The county's immunization program was by 1977 highly ranked by the state and one the service's first three programs. Back then, Craig said, there were between 25 and 50 immunizations given per month. Now, according to the center, that number holds steady at around 14,000 per year.

Craig said county commissioners had always been supportive of the nursing service but until 1976 were unable to expand it without the vote of the public. Voters three times since 1970 decided not to pass a tax levy that would allow new revenue for expansion, but that changed with the help of local members of the League of Women Voters, commissioners and other supporters by 1986, when the service was able to expand enough to become an official health department.

In 1988, the county signed a contract to build a facility, which is still in use today with some additions built on as the number of the center's services and programs have grown to over 20. The center also has 32 regular employees who provide health and environmental services or jointly administer state nutrition assistance programs.

The health center's budget comes from a combination of county tax revenue and state and federal payments for programs administered through the center. In 2010, the center spent $2.49 million of the $2.69 million in revenue, according to the most recent financial figures recorded for the center by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

An example of the pioneering for better overall health Craig gives is that years ago, Cape Girardeau County's health department was the first in the state south of St. Louis to offer HIV tests.

"There was a great deal of fear," Craig said. "People just didn't know what that was about and weren't exactly willing to try to deal with it immediately."

But dealing with HIV/AIDS as soon as possible was exactly what the community needed at that time, Craig said, and assessing and meeting the health needs of the community is the purpose of a public health nurse.

The health center analyzes data examining Cape Girardeau County's overall health every three years. Most recently, a 2012 survey showed the county faces problems with rising rates of obesity, smoking in general and smoking by pregnant women as well as a decrease in the number of children receiving full immunizations. The center uses the findings for a base while developing a strategic plan and goals for improving health in the county.

Other programs and services that have begun or expanded under Craig are the addition of an environmental services division of the health department, which includes safety inspections of many businesses, including restaurants and day cares, advising people about environmental public health, evaluating water and on-site sewage on request and investigating many potential public health problems.

"If you never meet me or Jane, that is a good thing," Craig said of the environmental services. "Just know that you are enjoying yourself in a much safer community, made possible by those services."

Development of community response teams for disasters has also been spearheaded by the center, and each year the center holds large flu shot clinics that provide vaccines to thousands of residents.

Jane Wernsman will be taking over as director of the Cape Girardeau County Health Center. (Laura Simon)

Wernsman said she intends to carry on the tradition of the center being a "go-to" institution for public health concerns and that she hopes the public will test the ability of the center's staff when this year's flu shot clinic is held Oct. 4 at the Osage Centre in Cape Girardeau.

Craig will keep working at the center about two days per week until the end of flu season. She also plans to keep working closely with the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri, as she has been involved with animal welfare for many years in addition to public health.

"I've still got a pretty good brain and a pretty good body. I want to give all I can while I still can," she said.

Wernsman said she isn't surprised about Craig's determination to keep working with the public.

"The reason you become a public health nurse is so that you can work with people in a different way," she said. "At the same time we get to work with individuals, we see the effect on the public as a whole."

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

1121 Linden St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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