Public health defenders: Dr. Mysheika Roberts and Joe Mazzola, Executives of the Year
Public health commissioners Dr. Mysheika Roberts and Joe Mazzola: Executives of the Year, Columbus CEO Healthcare Achievement Awards 2021
If ever a time needed voices of reason, understanding and truth, the past year has been just that. Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts and Franklin County Health Commissioner Joe Mazzola lent their voices to guide central Ohioans through uncertainty and fear as the Covid-19 pandemic bore down.
“I always thought we were due for a major outbreak, but thought somehow it would be different in 2020. It’s been eye-opening,” Roberts says. “It’s been a test of my strength and my character and that of my team, who have not let me down from Day One.”
Mazzola says he never thought he’d be in the public eye as much as he has been in the past 12 months, but he is “very, very thankful to work in public health” and with his staff in particular.
In nominating Mazzola and Roberts for a joint Healthcare Achievement Award, Nationwide Children’s Hospital said, “Both exhibited leadership of the highest, most inspirational order. They have worked closely together and practiced a strong and public partnership, they have rallied their leadership teams and employees to face complex and frightening challenges and they have directly engaged the public with calm, candor and encouragement. And they have been unwavering.”
Roberts and Mazzola credit not only their teams but leadership at Columbus’ four healthcare systems, state and local government and other organizations for mounting a comprehensive yet agile response to a rapidly evolving pandemic.
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In the last year, each commissioner issued a clarion call to action that they feel may be the biggest accomplishments of their careers.
For Roberts, it was her decision to advise cancelation of the Arnold Sports Expo last March when Covid-19 began to appear locally after originating overseas. With the possibility of athletes coming in from all over the world, Roberts was alarmed.
“I remember waking up that morning. I sent a text to a couple of my staff and said, I think I want to cancel the Arnold.” One staffer told her later he had to spit out his morning coffee when he read the text. She also remembers calling Mayor Andrew Ginther’s office, and “no one blew me off.” She found receptive ears in Gov. Mike DeWine and then-Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton.
The Arnold was one of the first major events in the country to be canceled due to Covid. This year’s sports and fitness festival is postponed until later in 2021. Ginther and DeWine were the public faces of the decision to shutter the expo, and Roberts is OK with that. “What I wanted to see canceled was canceled. I rang the bell. I am proud that I stood up and said the Arnold shouldn’t happen. I knew what the financial implications were.”
Mazzola’s moment was when the county health department became the first in Ohio to declare racism a public health crisis. “I got chills when we did that. Our county acknowledged how systemic racism is a significant driver of public health outcomes.”
Timing of the public declaration came at a pivotal point. “This pandemic was bearing down on us, and we saw that it likely was going to have a disparate impact” among underserved populations with already limited access to healthcare.
Simultaneously, racial unrest was mounting on the streets of Columbus and around the country in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. “If ever there was a time to make this declaration, this was it,” Mazzola says.
“Looking back, I’m glad we put our voice out there. We were humbled by the response, people saying, thank you for naming it and acknowledging it.” He’s quick to add, “Naming is the easy part. We are trying to be part of the solution.”
To that end, the county health department hired an associate director of inclusion and established an equity council to address food deserts, transportation, housing and mental health and addiction. Its work will be ongoing.
Mazzola says the power of words has been a constant theme within the department as staff asked, “How do we create a message that is science-based and data-driven that resonates with people?” To address that, it created the Spread Love, Not Covid campaign to address people primarily 30 and younger.
Public health departments have been further confounded by the urgent need to address Covid-19 and continue vital programming, Roberts says. “We’re doing everything in our power to get to the other side of this pandemic” while still trying to address existing public health crises such as the opioid epidemic, violence, tobacco use and obesity.
While Mazzola, who majored in marketing, took a less traditional route to public health, Roberts was dialed in from the day basketball star Magic Johnson announced he had HIV in 1991. Raised in Los Angeles and a huge Lakers fan, Roberts says hearing him tell the world he was infected with the deadly AIDS virus “put a different spin on it, particularly in the minority community, where African Americans were disproportionately affected. I took my first public health class as a result of Magic Johnson.”
Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.