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Allegheny County Health Department selects North Carolina leader as its new permanent director

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA

The Allegheny County Board of Health on Monday approved a new Health Department director.

A search committee selected Dr. Iulia Vann to fill the position; the board unanimously confirmed her appointment in a 7-0 vote. The Pennsylvania Department of Health must confirm her nomination.

The department has been without a long-term leader for more than a year. Former county Health Department director Dr. Debra Bogen was tapped by Gov. Josh Shapiro to become the state’s interim Secretary of Health in January 2023.

Her replacement, acting director Patrick Dowd, was recently confirmed by the Environmental Charter School board of trustees to become the school’s next CEO. He will depart from the county July 9.

Vann is currently the director of public health for Guilford County, North Carolina, where she manages more than 450 full-time employees and a budget of $55 million.

Under her leadership there, the department was recognized for its “creative response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its determination to keep residents safe,” Allegheny County officials said in a news release. In 2021, it was honored as the North Carolina Public Health Association Health Department of the Year.

“It is an honor to be selected to lead the Allegheny County Health Department,” Vann said in a statement. “I’m no stranger to complex and multifaceted public health challenges, and I’m so proud of what we accomplished in Guilford County during my tenure.

“I look forward to bringing the creativity and energy that defined my time in North Carolina to Allegheny County to help protect public health for the residents of Western Pennsylvania and ensure we are building communities where everyone is safe and thriving,” she added.

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The health department is responsible for inspecting restaurants, monitoring air quality, enforcing emissions regulations and overseeing the county’s Clean Air Fund, among other things. It also offers clinical services including dentistry, immunizations and sexual health resources.

The search for Bogen’s permanent successor started early this year, after County Executive Sara Innamorato took office. Board of Health members said the delayed search ensured the new administration had input in the hiring process.

The search committee included Board of Health members Dr. Lee Harrison, Dr. Donald Burke, Dr. Joylette Portlock and Dr. Edith Shapira. Innamorato transition committee members rounded out the nine-member group: Pennsylvania United executive director Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, Highmark Health president and CEO David Holmberg, political and operations director for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jordan Ball, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh emergency services director Dr. Sylvia Owusu-Ansah and executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania Silas Russell.

Executive search firm Krauthamer & Associates helped conduct a nationwide search to fill the position.

Shapira noted that they received “extensive” community input: Residents gave feedback at various community engagement meetings, as well as through online and paper surveys. Krauthamer & Associates also interviewed more than 50 local stakeholders about the qualities they hoped for in a new director.

“A brief synopsis of this extensive input is that the priority should be given to someone with public health experience and medical knowledge. … It should be someone who will have the courage to stand up and do what's right for public health,” Shapira said.

The community feedback was largely in line with the health department priorities Innamorato’s administration shared with the board, which include addressing the opioid epidemic, reducing health inequities (especially maternal and infant mortality), addressing housing issues, and improving air quality.

Vann will inherit department leadership at a crucial time for the county, advocates said Monday.

Penn Environment clean air advocate Zach Barber said new rules from the Biden administration will give the health department more power to go after soot and coke oven polluters.

“We hope Dr. Vann will work with the health department's air program to proactively ratchet down these emissions and make sure that the department has the resources it needs to go toe to toe with U.S. Steel and other polluters,” he said.

Barber and others who commented at Monday’s meeting said they hope the transparency and community collaboration that marked the search process continues under Vann’s leadership.

Dr. Barbara Nightingale, the department’s deputy director for clinical services, will serve as interim director until Vann begins her tenure later this summer.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.