A Year Apart: How The Pandemic Has Impacted Local Health Department Directors
Last March, the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Utah. Since then, the state has seen more than 380,000 infections. In the year since, five of the 13 executive directors at Utah’s local health departments have confirmed they are retiring or have recently done so.
For some, their plans were derailed last year because of the pandemic. For others, they’ve been planning on this day for some time.
Lloyd Berentzen was planning to call it a career last spring, he had it down in his calendar. He’s been the health director at the Bear River Health Department for around 20 years. But when the pandemic started picking up, he said it didn’t feel right to leave then.
“All your education and all your experience, you study about pandemics, you figure out how you're going to respond, you have your local plans on the shelves,” Berentzen, who will be officially retired at the beginning of April, said. “But actual implementation is something that a person can go a whole career and never actually experience. So in some ways, these health officers that are retiring, it's really a great thing that they were still there because of their experience.”
Brian Bennion was planning to retire from the Weber-Morgan Health Department in March 2020. But he feels the same as Berentzen — his years of experience kept him around.
“I needed to be a part of this,” Bennion said. “I couldn't just walk out because it hit so fast and lots of decisions and health orders needed to be made.”
He officially retired at the end of February once he had trained the new director and the vaccination effort was under way.
Ralph Clegg stepped down from leading the Utah County Health Department at the end of 2020. He said when he took the job in 2015 he promised to stay five years. He admits the thought crossed his mind to leave sooner.
“As you get into a pandemic and you're working 12 plus hours a day,” Clegg said, “It takes its toll on you. But, you know what's important, not to just abandon things and leave them as they were.”
Also having a supportive staff and someone ready to take his place made it easier to leave when he did, Clegg said.
Gary Edwards leads in Salt Lake County. He said he can’t remember the last time he took a lunch break in the past year. Edwards had his retirement date set for a while in July 2021.
Salt Lake was one of the first counties in the state to institute a mask mandate. The state legislature passed a bill ending Utah’s mandate on April 10, and the county hasn’t definitively said if it will follow suit. Edwards said they’ll see if the county is “heading in the right direction.”
He said the last year has shown him how much influence politics have in public health, and it hasn’t been easy for him to navigate that relationship.
“I'm trying to work through, in my mind, not letting those frustrations of the last year cloud a career that I have just totally enjoyed,” Edwards said.
Randall Probst at the Wasatch County Health Department hasn’t set a definite retirement date yet — he’s planning on early this summer. He originally had plans to at the beginning of 2020.
Probst said he’s glad he ended up staying, but he’s looking forward to the future.
“I have a small farm and so for the last year or two I just haven't really gotten to any work,” Probst said. “I'm looking forward to being able to get a little bit of work done — some plowing, some planting and just some farm work.”
They all said they generally feel positive looking back on their careers in public health, but they won’t miss COVID-19.