Allegheny County’s top health official will leave at the end of July.
Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, will leave to take a job with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
“The fact that she is being tapped for this prestigious position is just further recognition of the acclaim and prestige she has brought to Allegheny County,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in a statement released Friday morning. “It is something that all of us can be proud of – that one of ours is going to be doing extraordinary things for public health on a national scale.”
Hacker has been with the county’s health department since 2013.
While in office, Hacker boosted efforts to test county children for lead and spearheaded the Live Well Allegheny program, partnering with muncipalities, schools, restaurants and others to improve residents' health. During her tenure the county also passed an ordinance banning vaping in places where smoking cigarettes is also prohibited.
“When I came in, I think I had one deputy, there really wasn’t much of an infrastructure, and … 2017 when we got accreditation, was really a high point," Hacker said.
The department's push to implement a new restaurant grading system, meant to be more accessible to the general public, was ultimately unsuccessful. And while the Fitzgerald administration praised the Health Department’s efforts monitoring and regulating air quality, especially in the Mon Valley region, Allegheny County is still struggling to meet federal air quality standards, largely due to emissions from U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works.
Hacker leaves amidst a months-long air quality pollution problem stemming from a December fire at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. Residents have complained of bad smells, breathing problems and other health issues. The county has since fined the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Earlier this month, the Allegheny County Health Department also fined the company $300,000 for unrelated air pollution violations during the first quarter of 2019.
She said there’s also more work to be done in the areas of health disparities, chronic disease prevention and tobacco use.
“I still feel that our tobacco smoking rates are way too high here in Allegheny County,” she said. “I still feel that our policies at the statewide levels around the Clean Indoor Air Act allow, in some ways, the smoking rate to be where it is. I’d like to see those exemptions removed.”
However, she said she feels like she is leaving the health department in good shape.
“The most important thing from my perspective is that what happens in the future continues the progress that we’ve made so far. I am absolutely convinced that the department is in a place where that is going to be possible.”
Board of health member Dr. Kotayya Kondaveeti said “it’s going to be hard to fill her shoes.”
Hacker is a pediatrician by training and taught classes at both the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Graduate School of Public Health. She previously taught at Harvard's Schools of Medicine and Public Health and worked on public health initiatives in Cambridge, Mass.
She said she looks forward to bringing her experience on the local level to bear on the national landscape.
“We’ve been fortunate to have her experience and talents in service to the health of the people of this county,” said board member Dr. Joylette Portlock in an e-mailed statement. “The nation is fortunate that she’ll now be bringing her dedication and skill to the CDC.”