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Top Tri-Cities public health officer has stepped down after just months on the job

Tri-City Herald - 2/29/2024

Feb. 29—The new health officer for Benton and Franklin counties is stepping down by mutual decision of Dr. Aren Giske and the Benton Franklin Health District Board.

The board picked Giske in January 2023, but Giske did not start work until September, first remotely, and then on site in the Tri-Cities in November. He had asked for time to sell his house and move cross country.

"After careful consideration and discussion by both BFHD and Dr. Giske, both parties have mutually and amicably decided to part ways," according to a joint statement by the health district and Giske Thursday afternoon.

They said they are united in continuing to remain supportive of each other and the health of those in the greater Tri-Cities area.

"BFHD is grateful for the opportunity to get to know Dr. Giske, and likewise Dr. Giske in learning more about public health and BFHD," the statement said.

Giske replaced Dr. Amy Person, who resigned in August 2022 after leading the Tri-Cities area through much of the COVID pandemic.

As the district waited for Giske's arrival, Dr. Larry Jecha, a former long-time health officer for the Tri-Cities area, filled in on a part time basis.

At the Benton Franklin Health District Board meeting Wednesday, Giske gave an update on public health topics, including recent measles cases in the state of Washington and guidelines being considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the recommended isolation time for people with COVID-19 infections.

Later in the meeting the district board met in a closed session to review the performance of a public employee, who was not named, according to the agenda. It held no discussion after the closed meeting.

Giske's last day was Thursday, Feb. 29.

No decision was immediately made about the process for finding a new public health officer for the two counties.

District officials have been talking with Dr. Bob Lutz, who is regional medical officer for the Washington state Department of Health for the area that includes Benton and Franklin counties, as it prepares for the district to be without a health officer for a time. Dr. Person resigned to accept a different regional medical officer position for the state.

Longtime health district employee Heather Hill remains as Benton Franklin Health District deputy to the health officer.

The health officer helps identify health needs of residents to develop district programs; establishes protocols for environmental health programs such as food safety; enforces state public health regulations; and provides information to area doctors and to the public.

Giske's background was in occupational medicine rather than in public health.

When he was hired his most recent job shown on LinkedIn was medical director of MaineGeneral Workplace Health, which is the largest community occupational medicine program in the state of Maine.

He previously worked in Port Orchard, Wash., as an occupational medicine physician for Washington Permanente Medical Group for about five years starting in August 2016.

District administrator also needed

The board also is working to hire a district administrator, after Jason Zaccaria resigned in July a week after being placed on administrative leave.

Janae Parent, the district's assistant administrator, is serving as interim administrator.

The district has had 53 applications for the position, according to information shared at the Wednesday board meeting.

No information has been made public on why Zaccaria was placed on leave by the district board.

In November, Suzie Saunders, representative for PROTEC17, a union representing public health workers, read from a letter submitted to the health board that claimed Zaccaria had a history of sudden terminations, absences during the COVID-19 pandemic and favoritism toward some workers.

Zaccaria said then that there were many inaccuracies in the letter.

The district administrator oversees staff and reports directly to the district board. They plan, organize and direct the operation, administration, policy development, personnel and business management of the Benton-Franklin Health District.


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