Fulton names former CDC official as new health director after audits

The new director of Fulton County’s health department has a motto: data for action.

Kathleen E. Toomey, who will take over the department in mid-March, has a lot of opportunities to act after recent audits showed several issues with management.

She’ll have to improve the health of Fulton residents, who she said have a disproportionate amount of the state’s diseases, and work to right the operations of a department that deals with everything from tuberculosis outbreaks to restaurant inspections.

“I’m so excited; I feel like there’s so much to be done,” Toomey said. “The stars have aligned to put me in the right place at the right time to be part of this transformational change.”

Toomey has a lot of experience with change. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was the director of the division of public health within the state’s department of human resources, a job that became tied to Homeland Security.

There, she said, she was able to create networks between security and health that are still in place. She also enhanced the state’s epidemiology program, which tracks the data that is used to monitor disease trends.

Most recently, Toomey worked as the country director in Botswana for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There, she worked closely with research and prevention of HIV and tuberculosis, both of which remain issues in Fulton. Her five years in Botswana, Toomey said, showed her the importance of linking testing and treatment. And her time at the state taught her that Georgia needs to utilize a system of care with partners statewide.

“I have a strategic vision to try to move the county forward in a very proactive way toward improved health and wellness,” she said. “We can change the status of health in Fulton County.”

Toomey said she hopes to maintain and develop partnerships across the CDC, private doctors and other groups in order to build a network that can improve health outcomes in the county, and therefore statewide.

“Your strength is limited if you only rely on yourself and your staff,” she said. “You can’t work in isolation.”

Her work will be part of a Fulton County goal to ensure that all people are healthy, Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson said. Anderson said Toomey’s work will help drive the county to its aspirational goals. The department has a $17 million budget for 2016.

“I think she’s going to be phenomenal,” he said. “We have all these opportunities, and she wants to make a difference. I think she will make a difference.”

In a statement, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald said Toomey’s credentials and experience “are virtually unparalleled.”

Toomey is taking over the department at a time of transition. The former director, Patrice Harris, resigned in the fall after the county was forced to return millions of dollars in federal HIV grants because the money was not spent by the required deadline.

Harris had been with the county for a decade. After her departure, an audit of the HIV grant program showed insufficient oversight contributed to the problems.

Earlier this month, an audit of the whole department showed a pattern of mismanagement and understaffing that led to a backlog of more than 2,000 restaurant and other inspections, potentially endangering the health of residents. Poor financial controls showed a disregard for county policies.

Toomey, who will make $180,0000 a year, said she had a lot of experience leading organizations through change, including morale issues.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to get the health department moving in a positive direction again,” she said. “What an opportunity.”

Toomey earned her masters of public health and her MD from Harvard University. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Peru and served as Pew Health Policy Research Fellow. Her bachelor’s degree in biology is from Smith College.

The county’s interim health director, David Sarnow, will serve as Toomey’s deputy. Sarnow joined the county in October after retiring from the U.S. Air Force, and will focus on the department’s operations.

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