‘The right person at the right time’ to become Ingham County health officer

Todd Haywood

Standing at a window in her well-maintained condo in Bath Township, Linda Vail expresses her discomfort to the photographer.

“I just can’t put on a smile,” she said. “Not like some people. Give me something to laugh at.”

But well the soldiers gave a performance for the city pulse photographer. He’s always steady, laser-focused.

What an ironic comment from the 61-year-old. She has purposely positioned herself in front of the media as the face of the Ingham County Health Department. The photo session may have been one of his last media appearances. Next month, she is retiring from the county after nine years running the department under the title of health officer.

Those who have worked with Vail know that behind her analytical, no-nonsense demeanor is a woman who carved a niche for herself as a leader in public health and life. They consider her performance during the pandemic to be nothing less than a life saver.

“I know there would be a lot more deaths in Ingham County if she wasn’t here,” said Ingham County Commissioner Todd Tennis, who has worked closely with her as chair of the committee that oversees the health department. “He saved lives. She was the right person at the right time.

“He has a unique combination of bench skills and people skills,” said Renee Kennedy, whom Vail succeeded in running the Ingham County Health Department in 2014.

There, she oversaw a staff of more than 400, a budget of more than $50 million a year, and a network of health centers—a challenge already before COVID hit in March 2020.

build for

Vail reflected that the COVID pandemic took a lot more out of him than he recognized or perhaps cared to admit to himself. With death threats to kill state lawmakers and middle-of-the-night phone calls to record COVID deaths, Vail was the face of fighting the virus in Mid-Michigan. But his work during the pandemic is just the surface of an extraordinary professional life that stemmed from a childhood interest in science.

She misses a chemistry set, a rock tumbler and a rock collection. Before graduating from high school, he built and launched a weather balloon.

“You know, this job and this work and science, in particular, is just baked into who I am, which makes it hard to separate my work from who I am,” she said. “Because I really love it. I love the work, but I don’t love the work because of the work; I love the work because of the content.”

His love of science was something that was nurtured by his father, Tom Vail.

He said that both of them liked to spend time on logic puzzles.

“We both enjoyed them. It’s like, ‘Oh look, a nice, juicy logic problem.’ So, he definitely had an understanding of logic and science and math,” she said. “He was just a genius. I mean, he could turn miles into kilometers, grams into ounces—things in his head instantly. He was my father in a nutshell.

Tom ran a construction business, mostly painting, with his brother Jim as a subcontractor. He decided to retire early at the age of 51. He eventually came out of retirement to do contract work helping design interiors for big box stores.

The father she misses the most was also the one who taught his daughters to play the game of cards.

“All we played was pinochle. It’s a complicated game. The two became so intertwined during the game that they could read nonverbal cues, anticipate each other’s moves. They coordinated,” she said. “If you leave my father and I as partners for the whole evening, we will destroy you.”

After graduating from high school in suburban Atlanta, Vail earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Georgia in 1982. Four years later, she landed in Kalamazoo as a researcher for the pharmaceutical giant Upjohn.

Vail felt in Upjohn that she was isolated. The laboratory work he did was unique in nature. Scientists stood at lab benches and repeated tests, changing the molecular structure of a drug little by little each time, waiting to see what happened to the cells.

With just a bachelor’s degree, she knew she had grown “as far as I could go” without getting another degree. In 1996, he earned a master’s degree in public health administration from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

She saw an ad for an emergency preparedness position at the Kalamazoo County Department of Health. He applied for the position and was hired.

She was developing and implementing emergency plans for every conceivable disaster, including a new respiratory outbreak like COVID. She was soon promoted to the role of Deputy Health Officer in Kalamazoo and then to Health Officer in 2006.

When she was strategizing and role-playing massive crises in July 2010, she had to deal with one firsthand. More than a million gallons of thick tar sands oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River, creating a 37-mile-long disaster zone. A dam at Kalamazoo was the only hope to prevent the oil from reaching Lake Michigan. If oil flowed over the dam, Vail said, it would mix with EPA Superfund sites, causing unknown ecological and health problems. Fortunately, this did not happen.

looming pandemic

During a conversation with City Pulse on the one-year anniversary of the arrival of COVID-19 in Michigan, Vail talked about how he and the Department of Health’s medical director, Dr. Adnik Shoyinka — who served as health officer Will replace – Was in Washington when his phone started ringing informing him of the arrival of the virus.

“This is what we’re worrying about,” Vail said.

Both were in D.C. to attend a conference focused on the opioid crisis, another epidemic of concern for Vail. The conference was about medically assisted treatment for opioid addiction. This is an intervention where a doctor monitors the slow reduction of opioids in order to wean a person off the drug and prevent excessive withdrawal symptoms.

While groups such as Punk with Lunch have been successfully operating syringe exchanges and Narcan distribution, it was Vail, in partnership with the board of the Ingham Community Health Center, that rewrote Lansing’s drug paraphernalia law to bring it in line with state law. can be brought in line. That move cleared the way for Well to greenlight syringe programs as necessary to prevent infectious diseases.

“I faced questions about this. People used to come to me and say that using syringes is leading to addiction,” she said. “That’s not what science says. It says when people have clean needles they don’t get diseases like hepatitis and HIV. We keep them alive.

Tennis said Vail has a unique ability to put public health at the center of people.

“She just sees people as people,” he said. “He has them as first people.”

As Vail turns his attention to the pandemic, the stress begins to take its toll. Like most Michiganders, he found his routine disrupted, often disdained. While she could still run—a hobby she started at age 30—she couldn’t do the weightlifting work at the gym. that Another was the exercise regimen she picked up at age 35, and it had the bonus of helping her run marathons.

With a degree in microbiology, Vail understood the science of COVID better than most. This helped him direct the emergency rreacts to the virus and shows his fusion of people skills and science skills.

She also had to deal with the loss of her father, compounding the pressure of Mid-Michigan’s fight against COVID.

In 2019, he was planning to travel by car from his home in Weslaco, Texas, to Michigan. Val said that when he was 83, he was not worried about him driving. It was not unusual for him to travel. The two made plans to text and call each other as they traveled their way to Michigan.

“I started texting him to find out where he was, and he didn’t answer,” Vail said. She was trying to determine whether he had been in an accident or had some emergency in the hotel room. But he thought that if it were so, someone would have contacted him.

“Eventually I sent the police to do a health check-up at his home in Texas, and that’s where they found him,” Linda said. “He never really left – just died. I still don’t really know what caused it.

As the first anniversary of his death approached, Vail was grappling with locals in East Lansing over an outbreak of COVID-19 linked to a popular nightlife spot in Harper’s. Ultimately, 185 cases of the disease were epidemiologically linked to the bar across the state.

As she focused on science, doing interviews with local, state and national news outlets, she also grieved the passing of her father.

“I guess I didn’t expect the one-year anniversary of his death to affect me like this,” Vail said, adding that she became emotional during the crisis. “The only thing I can think of is that it was really painful, you know? So, it was like reliving a trauma in a way, because I had no idea that I was going to lose my father.” I am going to

racial inequality

In Kalamazoo, she was aware that racial disparities in health outcomes were everywhere the department touched. Preventable disease such as maternal and child health issues, heart disease and diabetes were far more prevalent among African Americans.

“He saw it right away because She was already working to understand white privilege,” Canady said of Vail’s preparations to inherit the health department with a strong social justice program. “She was ready for it.”

Early on, Vail encouraged county commissioners to adopt a “health in all policies” policy, which required departments to evaluate their proposals and spending through the prism of health and health equity.

“First, it meant the Department of Health coming in to do a health impact assessment,” she said. “Eventually, I had to say, ‘No, you need to do this.'”

It worked. The departments now do this work as part of their normal routine.

In the spring and summer of 2020, streets filled with protesters furious over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The black man was shown on video dying of suffocation as police officers stood by and allowed another to kneel on his neck.

Working with department heads and elected officials, Vail supported those who advocated a declaration that racism was a poBlick health crisis.

“If you start digging into a problem and you keep coming back to systems that are built from the beginning to be unequal, you have to come to a point where you’re not politely saying, ‘Racial inequality here. Or a racial disparity.’ No, it takes courage to do the right thing, and that is to state the facts. Racism is the problem.

The Board of Commissioners adopted the resolution on June 11, 2020. At that time the epidemic seemed to be subsiding.

Kennedy, Vail’s predecessor, said that his advocacy for the declaration took “courage”.


Vail will officially retire on February 17.

“My partner is a little older than me,” she said. “I need time to work with him.”

He never saw himself retiring at 61. She always thought that she would retire at the age of 60. But COVID, while not entirely the driving force, played a role in hanging up his team meetings and county email for the peace of retirement.

“I was working 18 hour days with constant pressure; constant need to solve problems; Constant need for high level decision making. The pressure of a political virus, a political vaccine — everything with a political color — was intense. It was incredibly intense.

He and his partner Mike Aia, 73, a musician who leads the band Orchestra Ritmo, will likely make the trip. Both were in Morocco in the autumn. Vail’s Facebook feed is full of pictures of the country and the people. Vail wants to spend more time with her two granddaughters in Kalamazoo, where she has a daughter. They also have a son in Las Vegas.

Vail and Aiya boarded a plane to Belize on Monday. A friend had offered her the use of their house, Aiya said as she watched Vel take her picture,

Although she won’t be a health officer, she will remain involved, she told CityPulse in an interview in August, after she informed the county she would be retiring in six months.

“My mind is busy thinking about everything — infectious diseases, how they spread, equality, justice. I don’t anticipate closing my mind around those things.

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