Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Dr. Annette Mercatante thought she’d finish her public health career with St. Clair County.
But after a controversial school mask order prompted the county board of commissioners to split and advertise her dual position earlier this year, Mercatante’s final day was Wednesday.
Two individuals have been hired to replace her formerly dual role as medical director and public health officer.
“I just want people to know that this wasn’t a voluntary retirement. I get a lot of people going, ‘Congratulations on your retirement,’ and it’s the last thing in the world I wanted to do is leave this staff and public health at this point. It’s with a really heavy heart that I’m leaving,” she said during an interview.
County board members took issue with Mercatante and what they alleged had been a communication problem with the rollout of the temporary K-12 mask mandate in January. In February, they broke her job into two.
Mercatante has been vocal about considering the move a termination.
This week, other health department officials joined her in looking back on what they said had been a painful few months bracing for her departure.
When asked, Mercatante and others pointed to their work with community health needs assessments, combating Hepatitis A, widespread promotion of vaccinations, combating diversity and health equity issues, and increasing the agency’s public role and place on community boards as their biggest steps forward under her leadership.
Mercatante said she wishes she could’ve done more in studying adverse childhood experiences as an indicator that trauma early in life translates to health issues as adults.
“This is part of my sadness in leaving,” she said. However, she said it would resurface as a core component of local community health improvement plans, particularly with the trauma emerging from the pandemic.
New health officer ‘is good leadership,’ administrator says
Mercatante’s exit means the St. Clair County Health Department staff must prepare to work under new health officer Liz King, who was promoted to the role June 16. King was formerly the health department’s nursing and community health director.
Greg Brown, the department’s administrator, was among those who expressed confidence in King’s appointment.
“Ultimately, we’ll be fine,” he said. “Liz is good leadership.”
“I think Liz is going to be a great leader,” Mercatante said. “I think our health department is strong. Public health is as strong as ever. It’s not going to go away because I’m gone. This is much bigger than me.”
In a statement, King addressed on Mercatante’s departure.
“It is said that the greatest leaders do not ‘manage’ but ‘lead,’ allowing other team members autonomy to grow and learn,” King said. “She was a master at this, and it has made all the difference to those on her administrative team.”
Brown: Model with part-time physician access is ‘going backwards’
Unlike the public health officer, whose administrative role is full time, the medical director in local health agencies is a part-time role with at least 16 hours a week required by statute.
It’s a difficult opening to fill, officials have said, particularly in a rural area.
The individual who was offered the role, Dr. Najibah Rehman, is serving temporarily after County Administrator Karry Hepting said Rehman accepted a different position.
“It’s hard to take on any new initiatives until we have some solid path with leadership,” Brown said.
The medical director helps build and maintain services and signs standing orders for nurses. There is concern a temporary appointment will stymie the pursuit of grants and jeopardize community relationships.
Brown said one area of concern is the health department’s teen health center. That’s where Mercatante first got her start in public health before becoming medical director.
Mercatante and Brown said teens at the Port Huron facility may be also losing more direct access to a physician and face a higher reliance on referrals.
“We’re going to lose a lot of medical support. Also, family planning. It’s going to be a loss,” Brown said Tuesday. “I think we’re going backwards with changes in the model. Back to a health officer and medical director being separate.”
Local officials reflect on Mercatante’s community impact
Justin Westmiller, the county’s emergency management director, worked closely with health officials during the rise of the coronavirus.
Although he didn’t think Mercatante’s exit would alter that partnership, he said she made decisions that “put her career at risk” and held “true to her medical beliefs,” going “above and beyond what a normal public servant might think they’re required to do.”
Port Huron City Manager James Freed, the only public official to reference Mercatante during a State of the County address in March, said they disagreed on “a lot of things” throughout COVID but that he gained “candid, truthful, and honest” insight to make decisions and that he appreciated peers like her because they “do not tell me what I want to hear.”
Public information officer Alyse Nichols said it was unique that they were able to share a physician’s expertise with weekly Facebook Live chats earlier in the pandemic.
“To be so transparent with the public and show all that empathy and say when she didn’t know, that is something special,” she said.
“She’s always been approachable and transparent with staff, as well,” Rebecca Campau, a nursing supervisor, said.
“I’ve been here 27 years from past leadership to current,” said Jennifer Michaluk, director of health education and planning, turning her attention to Mercatante. “You saw where there were gaps where we were not a presence at the table, but you said we have to be present. We are public health, we need to be at this table, our voice matters because you always saw things from the population level versus the narrow view. That made just a tremendous impact.”
Nichols said Mercatante also kept “an eye on partnerships,” adding, “I mean, the effort she put in making sure she made those partnerships for our Black and brown community. I have not seen that in my leaders working in local government or at the state level.”
On the latter, Mercatante helped spearhead special community clinics on Port Huron’s south side, citing a lack of access to the COVID vaccine for some minority populations.
Keeping momentum up through COVID and beyond after an emotional turn
Diane Lois, the county’s emergency response coordinator, said Mercatante’s presence has helped set the department up to share their expertise at large with other agencies.
Now, they hope to keep that momentum going.
However, Lois said they’re still dealing with the emotional impact of Mercatante’s departure.
“When this happened, Dr. Merc, it was a major kick in the gut. It affected everybody here. It’s like, ‘What do you mean?’” Lois said. “It was saying she was going to suffer for what all of us have done so proudly, worked so hard (at). We believe in it, we know what’s going on, we understand why we’re doing what we’re doing … There’s so much people don’t know on the outside about us and what we do. It was a punishment for doing our job.”
Mercatante said she doesn’t intend to retire as she waits for her a new opportunity to become official.
“I haven’t signed on the dotted line. I’m hoping to continue my role in public health at the state level,” she said. “… I think I still have a lot to offer. Certainly, I wish I could offer it to our local community. But having been — and I’ll say it again — forced out, I feel like I want to use my skill set until I’m ready to retire. That’s my goal.”
Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.
This article originally appeared on Port Huron Times Herald: Dr. Annette Mercatante leaves St. Clair County Health Department