State budget cuts have prompted Cowlitz County Health Department to cut seven positions, including one crucial to combatting the county's high smoking rates.
Jessica Bell, health educator and tobacco program coordinator for the health department for the past five years, is among those losing their jobs because of state funding cuts. Bell's role with the local Tobacco Free Coalition was, in part, to educate and combat the county's 19.4 percent adult smoking rate, one of the highest in the state.
"Jessica is a great loss," said Paul Youmans, director of Pathways 2020 and Cowlitz On the Move, efforts to improve the community's health and livability. "The rates of tobacco use is a concern for Cowlitz on the Move and Pathways. We just need to keep focusing on working collectively and collaboratively to continue to tackle these problems."
Youmans especially praised Bell's efforts as co-chair to make Longview parks tobacco-free. The Tobacco Free Coalition also has held cessation classes, launched efforts to reduce smoking among pregnant women and held numerous community awareness events about the danger of smoking.
In addition to Bell, the health department is losing an office assistant, another health educator, two public nurses, an epidemiologist and a secretary. All seven of the lost jobs were funded by the state and were not part of the county budget.
"We are sorry to be losing dedicated employees and important programs, but most of all, we regret the fact that our ability to prevent disease and promote health has diminished," said Cowlitz County Health and Human Services Director Carlos Carreon.
Other health department programs cut or reduced because of the layoffs are:
• SNAPed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education), in which a health educator works with children and families to promote healthy diets and combat obesity.
• Tobacco education to address tobacco use among youth and adults and pregnant women
• Testing for tuberculosis
• Pregnancy testing and emergency contraception
The health department will continue to investigate serious communicable diseases such as infectious tuberculosis and E. coli, but responses to other reportable infections will be reduced due to staff cuts, officials said.
"As of early February, we will have lost half of our public health nurses to budget cuts, so we simply will not be able to respond as quickly to communicable disease reports or potential outbreaks," said Dr. Jennifer Vines, the health department's deputy health officer.
Programs that are anticipated to continue for the foreseeable future include providing public health nurse case management for medically fragile children and health inspections to ensure clean water, proper waste disposal and safe food-handling practices at local restaurants and other places where food is served.