Thursday, 08 April 2021 16:12

Jarrell reflects on 30 years of public health service to Richmond County

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Jarrell reflects on 30 years of public health service to Richmond County RO file photo

ROCKINGHAM — Tommy Jarrell didn’t know much about public health when he applied for the Richmond County health director position in 1991 — a job he has held since, and will until May 27.

Jarrell grew up in the county, graduating from Richmond Senior High in 1981, a decade before he would return to lead the Health Department.

But at that time, he had no clue about his future path.

“I honestly didn’t know what I was interested in,” he said about his first years at Appalachian State University in Boone.

After speaking with counselors, Jarrell decided to pursue a degree in Health Administration his sophomore year through the business school.

He later obtained a Master’s in Health Administration from Central Michigan University through Fort Bragg.

Jarrell went to work at Moore Memorial Hospital — now FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital — working at the registration desk of the emergency room. He was transferred to the business office for a while and then back to the ER as assistant director.

During that time, he was living in Rockingham and commuting to work.

Jarrell said a friend from outside the county told him about the health director job in 1991.

“I didn’t know a lot about public health … in particular at that point, but I applied for it and was fortunate enough to be selected for the position,” he said.

A doctorate was not required, but Jarrell eventually earned his Ph.D through Kennedy Western University more than a decade later, after being talked into entering the program by a friend who worked in the home health field.

In 2014, the county consolidated several agencies, bringing the Health Department, Department of Social Services, Department of Aging Services and the director of Area of Richmond Transit under the Health and Human Services banner, with Jarrell overseeing 180 employees.

During his three decades at the helm, Jarrell has dealt with several memorable issues, the most challenging being the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Richmond was among the last of North Carolina’s 100 counties to report its first coronavirus case. In the past year, there have been more than 4,400 confirmed cases and 92 COVID-related deaths.

Despite the challenges, Jarrell said this has also been the most rewarding experience of his career, “especially as we’ve reached the point of offering vaccinations to people to help protect a lot of our most vulnerable (residents).”

“We want to reach that eldery population first because that’s the group that has the most difficult time with COVID,” he said.

Jarrell came on board just after the devastating Imperial Foods fire in Hamlet that left 25 people dead and 55 injured.

“Our involvement came when it was time to do something about the property,” he recalled. “You still had a burnt building there that was dangerous … as well as being an eyesore and a bad memory for people.”

It took several years, but, working with the state health director and the Rev. Tommy Legrand, the site was declared a public health nuisance and a grant was secured to raze the remnants of the building and clean up the property, which now serves as a memorial to one of the worst industrial disasters in American history.

“It continues to have bad memories for so many people, but at that time it was very vivid throughout our community, and so I think getting that taken care of was a big deal,” Jarrell said.

Every year there has been something different, another obstacle to overcome.

The Health Department has tackled bringing down the county’s teen pregnancy and infant mortality rates, which Jarrell said are “much better than they used to be.”

During his time there, the department has also established a dental clinic, primary care clinic and pharmacy assistance program to help uninsured and low-income residents gain access to health care and prescriptions, serving thousands of patients each year.

Those programs, Jarrell added, used grants as start-up capital.

In the past several years, the Health Department has also been addressing the opioid and drug crisis, which Jarrell said is “spiraling out of control.”

As with the Imperial Foods cleanup, Jarrell said the key to countywide health improvements has been cooperation with other agencies like Richmond County Schools, Richmond Community College, industrial employers and FirstHealth.

“If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to have good working partnerships,” he said.

That teamwork also applies internally.

Jarrell said he’s worked under five county managers in the past 30 years and all have been supportive and strong advocates of public health.

He also praised his team of nurses, social workers and other staff members for their work, often with limited resources.

“Nothing can be done without a staff that’s dedicated and committed,” he said. “A lot of people wear a lot of hats to make things work.”

As for his decision to retire, Jarrell said he always heard he would know when it was time — and finally understood what that meant.

He had actually planned to retire last year, but when the pandemic hit, Jarrell said he felt that it wasn’t a good time to leave.

Although the pandemic isn’t over, Jarrell said things have improved enough for him to step away and let someone else give it a try.

“I’m just grateful for the opportunity and privilege I’ve had to work in Richmond County … and try to make life better here,” he said. “I’m leaving excited about good things that will happen in Human Services in the years to come.”