New Public Health director says county faces both common and unique challenges

Craig Moorhead/Spring Grove Herald  Houston County’s new Public Health Director, Mary Marchel.
Craig Moorhead/Spring Grove Herald
Houston County’s new Public Health Director, Mary Marchel.

By Craig Moorhead

Spring Grove Herald


As Houston County’s newest department head, Mary Marchel took the reins of the  Public Health Department on Feb. 10.

She began her career as a hospital nurse in Brainerd, gaining eight year’s worth of experience before moving to Bemidji in 1985, where she joined the Beltrami County Department of Public Health. Within two years she was asked to become director of that department. In 2009, Beltrami County combined human services and public health, and Marcel was asked to consolidate the departments. At that point, she supervised approximately 140 full-time employees. Marchel remained at that post until accepting her present position.


Q: What made you decide to come to Houston County?

A: “I was really interested in finding just a public health chair. The attraction of just doing public health was pretty wonderful. Also, you have a beautiful area here, in the bluff country.

Q: You’ve had about two months to evaluate the needs of Houston County. What do you see as key issues right now?

A: “First of all, I’d like to say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the staff. They are superb. They have years of expertise and they understand service excellence. They are very passionate about the work they do… They know why they come to work every day, and realize that what we’re about is creating partnerships in health.

“As far as chronic longstanding things, there are a couple. Mental health issues are prevalent everywhere. We see it in our jails, our young people, and it’s a persistent problem with our elderly population. We live in a climate where we don’t get enough sunshine, and that’s part of it. Especially for the elderly, we frequently see depression.

“It’s important to have mental health providers that are accessible, that we have transportation, getting people to and from caregivers. And it’s important just to be able to get people out – for our seniors, for example.

“Another longstanding risk is inactivity. We know what inactivity does in regard to heart disease and diabetes. What can we do to help our people think about becoming more active? And not just thinking about it, but actually becoming more active?

“We’ve got this beautiful area with lots of walking paths and trails. We’re going to be talking about what we can do to get our population moving.

Q: Looking down the road, what are the emerging challenges for your department?

A: “I’ve been asked to serve on the frac sand study committee and I will. I am not going to speak too much to that just yet, because I am a learner. But I will be representing the perspective of public health. Trust me. That is the pair of glasses that I’ll be looking through.

“An emerging problem is the rate of Lyme’s Disease in our area. After meeting with the state epidemiologist assigned to the southeast region, I’m concerned with what I was told. We are beginning to notice an impressive trend of vector-borne disease, in particular for Houston County residents. Looking at the data per capita, we have a really large number (54 per 100,000 persons).

“The good news about that is the fact that our clinicians are recognizing it, testing for it, diagnosing it and treating for it. From a public health standpoint, we need to see more information getting to the public about how to protect themselves. Prevention is important… We will be coming up with strategies and efforts to address that for Houston County residents.

“Another issue is e-cigarettes,” Marchel added. “It’s still somewhat controversial in that we don’t yet have long-term studies. Nonetheless, I believe that we have lots of reasons to be alarmed because we’re seeing an incredible increase in use among middle school students.

“Some of the things that the industry is doing with flavors like cotton candy or blueberry, and some of the cartridges themselves, which have pictures that look like cartoon characters, makes you wonder. Who are they marketing this stuff to?

“We don’t know yet what the effects of long-term exposure are, or even short-term exposure, for that matter. But you see vaporizing in theaters, restaurants. There are hearings at the state legislature about aligning the e-cigarette policy to the same standard as Minnesota smoke-free legislation. From a public health standpoint, allowing them to be used anywhere and everywhere is just not acceptable.


Learn more about Public Health

Marchel invites residents to attend any of the upcoming community meetings scheduled throughout the county, including:

• Wednesday, April 16 from noon-1 p.m. in La Crescent at the Prince of Peace Church.

• Friday, April 25 from 7:30-8:30 a.m. in Caledonia at the Farmhouse restaurant (in conjunction with the Caledonia Rotary Club meeting) RSVP required by April 23 at 507-725-5810 or email [email protected]

• Monday, April 28 from noon-1p.m. in Houston at the Cross of Christ Church.

“Think of us as a potential partner,” she said. “I think people forget about us sometimes. We have years of experience and expertise, and we are here to serve the public.

“We’ll have lots of information, including some things on vector-borne (disease), and we’ll be showcasing some of our current initiatives with regards to the state health improvement grant that we have.


This story was reprinted with permission from the Spring Grove Herald.