Zachary Thompson, Dallas County Health Director: 'Your Health is Your Wealth'

Jul 18, 2013, 1:55 PM

Zachary Thompson, Director of Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services Zachary Thompson, Director of Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services

Zachary Thompson, director of Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services, greeted the 1,000-plus attendees at last week’s annual conference of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) and expressed how honored he was to meet so many local health department leaders from across the country.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Thompson about Dallas’ particular health challenges and innovations the department has developed to help improve health in the community.

>>Read more NewPublicHealth coverage of the NACCHO Annual Meeting.

NewPublicHealth: Dallas ranks 67 out of 232 Texas counties in the County Health Rankings. What efforts are underway to help improve population health in the county?

Zachary Thompson: Dallas County is looking at various things, including adding more bike lanes and more parks where people can exercise. There’s a health assessment going on now to look at how all of the major stakeholders can come together to improve our health rankings. We have a great public health improvement work group that is working on ways to improve overall health in Dallas County.

NPH: West Nile virus was a major issue in Dallas last year. What are you doing this year to help keep the city safe?

Thompson: We had no deaths from West Nile virus in 2010 and 2011, then 20 deaths in 2012, which may have been a once-in-fifty-years event. Last year’s outbreak got everyone’s attention that West Nile virus is endemic in our community, and so we took the lessons learned and increased our resources.

We know what we improved on. We began to do year-round mosquito testing in 25 municipalities, and began meeting regularly with all the municipalities to assess their needs. Everyone has been on board with the overall integrated mosquito plan. So far this year we’ve had no human cases of West Nile virus. We definitely focused on preventive education—we started that earlier. We’ve also added additional ground-based truck spraying capabilities in the event that we needed to increase our spraying activity if we have a similar outbreak as last year. We have made insect repellent available for all senior citizens. Hopefully last year’s outbreak will have been a rare occurrence, but we’re prepared in any case.

NPH: What might be the reason for last year’s outbreak having been so lethal?

Thompson: The mosquitoes that hit us last year may have been more virulent. We feel that we probably, in most areas, need a mosquito biologist to do some analysis. In some areas we see an abundance of mosquitoes, but have not been able to find the breeding grounds. One factor may be that in 2010 and 2011 there were drought conditions in Tessa, which is less optimal for mosquitoes. I hope other communities can learn from us that serous outbreaks can happen even after seasons of no cases of West Nile virus and that you have to be ever vigilant.

We’ve increased our lab capacity for testing. Some cities send a sample of their mosquitoes to us for testing and we can provide turnaround testing within 48 hours.

NPH: Are you working with hospitals on a community assessment plan?

Thompson: We’re looking at community health assessment as part of our performance improvement plan for the health department and we’re looking at action steps to move forward after the assessment is complete. We’re a firm believer in not just having an assessment, but having an assessment that lets us put forward measurable goals.

NPH: Are you optimistic about the opportunities to help improve peoples’ heath and lives?

Thompson: We’re going to have to really focus on getting people to understand that your health is your wealth— not only in Dallas County but throughout the United States. We’ve got to focus on getting people more active. We’re really working hard to help our residents but I think this is going to have to continue to be a national model using all forms of media to promote health awareness.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.