After serving the county for almost 30 years, Kern County Public Health Officer Dr. Claudia Jonah — who helped oversee the department during a measles outbreak, a West Nile Virus epidemic and other health scares — will retire at the end of this month.
Dr. Kristopher Lyon, Kern County Emergency Medical Services medical director, will become the interim public health officer April 1.
Jonah, a family practice physician who joined Public Health in 1988, became deputy public health officer at just 30-years-old, a position she described as exciting and more wide-reaching than she imagined.
“I definitely thought to myself multiple occasions: ‘they didn’t teach us this in medical school,’” Jonah told The Californian as she reflected on her career. “You would think that in some places like Kern County — which is sort of out-of-the-way — that you maybe would not have anything of significance to respond to, but we really have.”
During her 29-year-career, Jonah collaborated with others to shape public health policy and create programs geared toward building healthier communities in a region marked with poor health outcomes. Obesity, diabetes, nutrition, sexually transmitted diseases and valley fever are among the many issues she helped address.
She won’t take credit for any of it.
“It’s always teamwork,” Jonah said. “I’m not sure anybody can say: ‘I’m the one who did it all.’”
When Jonah began at the Kern County Public Health Services Department, it was a different world, she said. Their computers were Bernoulli Boxes — a now obsolete drive that took a floppy disk the size of a sheet of paper. Public perceptions of some health issues — including STDs — were much different. And the concept of public health is now much more expansive, Jonah said.
When Kern County experienced an economic downturn in the mid-2000s, it was public health officials who discovered that the number of abandoned homes — and pools — were creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus, Jonah said.
“It manifested this public health issue,” she said, recalling a time when she watched the deadly disease spread internationally and make its way from the East Coast into California. “It changed our practices.”
Kern County Public Health Director Matt Constantine thought back to Jonah’s role helping control a Swine Flu outbreak that occurred in 2009 and infected dozens of people.
“We had lines around the building and many mass vaccination clinics we set up. She played a prominent role in managing our outreach efforts and our vaccination programs,” Constantine said.
And when somebody died from a communicable disease, setting off a red flag for the Public Health department to alert the community, it was Jonah who would volunteer to take on the difficult task of calling the family.
“She makes calls to those family members and explains our role — that we’re extremely sorry for their loss, but we need to tell the community there’s a risk. Those are difficult phone calls to make,” Constantine said. “She assumed that responsibility, understood the sensitivity and wanted to make sure we had conversations with those families and assured them their identities would be protected.”
One of the programs Jonah said she was proudest to take part in was the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, a multi-county undertaking that began in 2005 and pushed for policy and environmental changes to help community members gain access to healthy foods and safe places to be physically active.
The mission is at the core of public health.
“We realized that we can’t do it all as Public Health. We can’t keep throwing programs at people. We need to find out what people need from us and that we cannot succeed in improving health conditions if we don’t take a collaborative approach,” Jonah said.
They found communities that were deserts for fresh fruits and vegetables and lacking in grocery stores. Many, however, had liquor stores and convenience marts. CCROPP went to work encouraging community markets and helping those liquor stores that don’t traditionally carry nutritious food begin to do so.
Jonah has also overseen changes in attitude toward Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Now part of a major “Know Your Risk” awareness campaign aimed at decreasing high incidence of the diseases, it was viewed as a taboo subject in the early 1990s, Jonah said.
After the State of California made chlamydia a reportable disease, health officials began to understand the stranglehold STDs had on the region, Jonah said.
“Kern County was at the top of the list for cases of chlamydia. We were surprised,” Jonah said. “We knew we had a really big issue with syphilis, but we were quite shocked to find out we were at the top of the list with chlamydia.”
So Public Health launched a short-lived awareness campaign. It all came crashing down when the department set up a display table outside of the Public Health clinic. Jonah wouldn’t go into details, but said that some children had seen some of the displays that parents described as “disturbing.”
“We were discouraged and instructed to back off for now and so we limped along knowing that the numbers and occurrence hadn’t decreased, and that the problem was still there,” Jonah said. “We had challenges, but now this is an opportunity. Let’s take full advantage of this and get it solved.”
Reflecting on her career, Jonah said she’s grateful to have found a role in public health. She started her career in family practice, but as a single mom, found it difficult to go back to school for her Masters in Public Health after finishing her residency program.
“I was always interested in public health, but never thought I’d be able to participate in it to the extent that I have,” Jonah said.
After retiring, Jonah said she plans to continue working on issues related to valley fever, an insidious respiratory disease endemic to Kern County, mentor youth in her community and spend more time at church.
“I’m so happy with the various insights I’ve gained with the Public Health Department,” Jonah said. “I’m excited to be able to use those skills to still be a benefit to this very community that has given me the opportunity.”