On Thursday, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris nominated Dr. Michelle Taylor as director of the health department. Taylor’s nomination goes before the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ General Government Committee on Wednesday. If approved, the full commission will vote on her appointment on July 26.
Taylor would replace Alisa Haushalter, who resigned in February after state officials said the county mismanaged the vaccination program, including vaccinating children (who were not yet approved for vaccination) and wasting thousands of doses. Since then, La Sonya Hall has served as interim director.
Taylor, a self-described “military brat” whose family traveled during her youth, spent some of her childhood in Memphis, where her mother was born and raised and her grandmother grew up. She graduated from Howard University and has several advanced degrees, including her Doctorate of Medicine from East Tennessee State University, a Masters of Science-Epidemiology from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard University and a Doctorate of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University.
Taylor spent four years as a pediatrician in Memphis. She’s also a veteran of the Shelby County Health Department, having previously worked on maternal and child health issues between 2013 and 2016. She was a chief of professional services and flight surgeon with the Tennessee National Guard. She recently left Joint Base Andrews, where she was an aerospace medicine division chief in the Office of the Air National Guard Surgeon General.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism sat down with Taylor on Monday to discuss the nomination and her plans, should she be approved. Below are excerpts from the interview that have been edited for length and clarity.
Hannah Grabenstein, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism: How has your work as a pediatrician here in Memphis, and your studies elsewhere, impacted your approach to treating vulnerable populations, as in some communities in Memphis?
Dr. Michelle Taylor: I did my first two pediatric residency years … in Johnson City, Tennessee and I learned that poverty has no color. When I went up to Appalachia, you know, I had come from Howard (University). I had grown up here. So, you know, I had one view of it, but when I went to Johnson City, I learned a totally different picture. So, by the time I came back here and did my last year of pediatric residency here, it was almost like a full circle moment because I got to see my own community again; I got to treat children here.
And I already had a lot of experience with working with a pediatrician in (Memphis) while I was an undergrad, and so it was great coming home… And one of my favorite parts of the job was working with new moms, working with young moms and experiencing, talking to them and talking to their mothers at the same time. And we always would come out of the room laughing and joking because this is where I grew up. …
I’m like, ‘Why are you surprised that I know that you may be feeding this baby too early, or that I know that you may be doing this,’ which is an old practice. I said, ‘My mom was born and raised here. My grandmother was raised here, you know. I know all of the ins and outs of what you all do at home when nobody else is looking, because you were raised to do that. Let’s talk about a different way.’ It was never anything that would just be lethal to a child, but it was always like, you know, when you know better you do better …
So when I went to (Johns Hopkins University), I talked about working in the office with new moms, how things were different in the South versus what folks were doing on the East Coast. My dissertation was all about how school plays into your health later on. And so, I looked at how adolescent experiences in school played into what their health looked like in adulthood. It was an interesting dissertation and probably drove part of my committee crazy because it was a little bit different, but we did see a difference in boys. If they had a good experience in school, by the time they got to their 20s that played into how they felt their health was going later on. So it was great.
And then when I got to Harvard, you know, it was a whole different focus because by that time I had done pediatrics, I’d done this Doctor of Public Health, I’d worked at the health department. And so my focus then was like, okay, I’ve worked under certain policies that sometimes can be somewhat restrictive in what we can do, especially when you’re trying to stay within budget. So what does it mean to really create a policy that is sustainable for an agency going forward, and also helps the community at the same time?
How do you plan to address the increase in COVID-19 cases? Is that something the health department can do?
So I’ll start by saying that I know right now as much as you know, just what’s printed in the paper as far as what’s going on. I won’t be able to give you a full answer until the Commission decides that I’m the right person for the job. But with that said, what I’d say is, you know, the health department has a part to play in helping to bring the rates down. But as we know from this past … year to 15 months, the community has a part to play in that too. And so, what does that mean?
It really is about explaining to people risks and benefits, okay? If you make this choice, this is your percentage of risk. If you make this choice, this is your percentage of risk. I want to be honest with you about that so that you can make the best decision for your family going forward. But also understand that in making that best decision for your family, you are also making a decision for the community for the better or for the worse depending on what that decision is. …
So I think about COVID that way when it comes to the individual and the community. People have to decide what level of protection they’re going to use, but I would hope that they would choose to use some level of protection, not only for themselves but for their families and then for their communities. It’s important. So, if you don’t do anything else but put your mask on, then you should do that. … I know some people have restrictions where they feel like they can’t wear the mask, but if you could just do that when you’re running into the store, when you’re running into a school, when you’re running into a building … because you’re not gonna know what the status is of everybody that you’re around. And so you’re not just protecting yourself, you’re protecting others.
So are you suggesting that people who are vaccinated should be wearing masks, right now, everywhere?
I’m not making that suggestion at all. I’m just saying that we need to look across the board at all the factors involved in protecting ourselves and protecting our communities.
How would you approach the relationship between the (Shelby County) Health Department and the state health department given that the person in charge of increasing vaccinations at the state level was just fired?
As far as my nomination is concerned, I only know about Shelby County and what’s going on in Shelby County. I have no knowledge about what’s going on at the state besides what I see in the press. So, it just wouldn’t be responsible for me to speak on that.
So, you know, the reports are that the state has stopped outreach on all vaccinations for children and stopped pushing childhood vaccinations. And I think that there is criticism that that’s a problem for HPV vaccines, for chickenpox vaccines. Would you work to increase vaccinations in Shelby County at all levels? Is childhood vaccination outreach important to the county?
I believe it’s important for the county, and I also know that the Shelby County Health Department has already made a statement saying that it’s important for the county, and that we will continue as a county to push for increased vaccination rates across the board.
One thing that public health officials are finding right now is, maybe they’ve (hit a wall on convincing) exhausted the supply of people who are on the fence of getting vaccinated, and they’re really running up against people who are sort of outright refusing. And I understand that you feel presenting risks and benefits will help convince people, but do you have a plan for how you would address people who maybe don’t have the right information to begin with?
Until I get in and really see the patterns of the population, (she can’t say.) … The folks who are collecting the data now have that information. I have no way of knowing that right now. That’s one of the reasons why I really want to be in this role, because I would love to work on getting the messaging right for those circles of people who may be hesitant, who may be flat out refusing … Because one thing I do know is that when people are fearful, they’re looking for the pot of information that they can relate to best. Sometimes it’s good information; sometimes it’s not.
This might be a little preemptive, but what are some of the non-COVID initiatives that you’d like to tackle, short term and long term? What would be your dream scenario for the health department?
So short term, I would love to see the health department be a convener of some of the mental health resources in the county. I believe that, especially coming into what we hope will be a post-COVID period, we have a lot of families, a lot of kids particularly, who may be struggling with the level of isolation that a lot of us have had over the past year to 15 months. And so I would love to see us create some kind of behavioral health team that could be that convener to bring those different resources together in the community and help people to know where they can go for services and any kind of supports that they would need.
Long term, I would love to see us make a move toward almost modernizing certain sections of the health department. There are some records that are still paper, you know — bringing us completely into an electronic medical record, making it so that getting birth certificates, death certificates, travel immunizations, all of the different family planning options (are accessible to the public).
And then finally, making sure that the messaging that we’re pushing out (is successful) … When public health works well, people don’t even know that it’s happening.
Hannah Grabenstein is a reporter for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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