Trumbull Health Department: ‘Blank slate’ helps, hinders new staff

Advantages and weaknesses, usually thought of as antonyms on the spectrum of success, are inherently a lot closer to each other at  inception.
When something new is created, like the Trumbull Health Department, there’s an expectation of excitement that shares a close border with the assumption that there will be some growing pains.
The department, formerly the Monroe-Trumbull Health District, is dealing with both sensations after moving last Friday, Aug. 14, into its new, permanent home at 335 White Plains Road — right up the road from its previous, temporary office at 935 White Plains Road that housed the town’s public health operations for the first six weeks of the summer.
“We saw folks from day one,” said Rhonda Capuano, the department’s director, who started on July 1. “I don’t know how, but people found us.
“With this new building, we’re even more visible than we were before — even more visible than the old health district, and we’re starting to get comfortable in our own facility,” she added. “It’s nice for residents to now have a stand-alone office that’s theirs and will become a recognizable fixture.”
Capuano, who worked for 32 years in the Norwalk Health Department and spent the last six years with Norwalk Public Schools Health Services Center, has reasonable expectations for when that recognition will become customary in the community she’s lived in for the last 25 years.
Part of the challenge, which could also be viewed as an asset, is how public health is viewed in general.
“You don’t even know it exists when it’s working correctly,” said Capuano, whose daughters attended Daniels Farm Elementary School, Hillcrest Middle School, and Trumbull High School.
“You only hear about it during flu outbreaks or when there’s a food-borne illness,” she added. “It’s under the radar, but important work.”
Juggling and growing
While getting noticed as a fixture in the community will happen over time, there’s another hurdle that the health department must deal with as it begins to market itself — and that’s striking the balance between being the “new guy in town” and being the experienced service organization.
“It’s a bittersweet challenge,” Capuano said . “We have to hire staff, get things up and running, while maintaining a wide-range of services to the community.
“It’s a lot of balls in the air,” she added.
Some of those objects that need to be juggled here in the early months include getting the department up to date with insurance companies and inspectors from the state’s health department.
“It’s a lot of procedural things,” the new director explained. “Like everything in life, there’s a learning curve.
“Right now, because we’re so new, we’re a bit limited in what we can get vaccine-wise,” she added. “We need to set up provider agreements with insurance companies, and a lot of those were already ordered months ago before we even existed.”
Community celebration
Capuano feels confident that the building, which previously used to house the town’s park rangers, will be brought up to speed relatively soon.
There’s a ribbon-cutting ceremony planned in October for when the hecticness of starting a new operation calms down a little, giving room for celebration.
“We’re just waiting for the grass to grow outside,” said Capuano, overlooking the building’s barren lot that will receive plantings from the town’s Parks and Recreation Department soon.
“It’ll be nice to celebrate and get the public in here to see the new facility,” she added. “We also want to celebrate the people who made this happen — the construction crews worked quickly and did a great job.”
Capuano, who was never involved with the old health district, said that working as an official town department does have its perks — like the aforementioned beautification of the building’s outside lot.
“We’ve already received a ton of support from the Public Works Department and Information Technology,” she said.
“Working with the town, we’re going to be doing a lot of collaboration with the Building Department, the Planning and Zoning Commission, and the fire marshal,” she added. “It’s nice to have that support — it makes serving everyone in the community a lot easier.
Staffing the place
Long before the October ribbon-cutting, Capuano plans to have her permanent staff hired. Currently, her roster is made up of per diem employees.
“None of them are full time yet,” she explained. “But in the interim, we’ve still be able to offer a lot of services, all from day one.”
The department will have a full-time inspector and a full-time administrative assistant, Capuano said, as well a part-time public nurse and a public health educator.
She would like to use interns and nursing students to serve some of the hours.
“We’re going to base our staffing based on need, which will be determined this year,” she said. “We’re feeling our way out.
“We might need to extend the staff’s hours depending on the response we get from the community,” she added.
Not that painful
For all the perceived disadvantages of being a new organization, the Trumbull Health Department is reveling in its youthful innovation.
“We’re still somewhat of a blank slate, and that gives the opportunity to develop into the organization we want to become and grow in a variety of different ways,” Capuano said. “We’re not locked into one way of doing something, or build into this structure of ‘it was done this way before, so we have to keep doing it that way’.”
In that sense the novelty of the health department is liberating to Capuano and her staff.
She said that the plan is to base health programs around community needs — from the feedback she receives from those around town and at work.
Peeking ahead
Trying not to look too far ahead, Capuano said some of those health initiatives could include a preventable disease program that centers on the cardiovascular system.
“We want to have a program that sets up blood pressure screening but also offers six workshops that discuss everything from diet to pharmaceuticals to physical activity,” she said.
Naturally, education programs and children-adult immunization opportunities need to be developed.
Two other interesting areas that the department would like to grow into is setting up a program for lead poisoning and an initiative that educates service workers.
“A lot of the time the people who work in restaurants don’t have a full education about public health — we want to make sure they have a better idea, and that’s something that could go a real long way in serving the community,” she said.
“Our main goal is to serve everyone in Trumbull to the best of our ability.”