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Guilford Public Health Director Dennis Johnson retires after 20 years of shepherding the community through changing public health needs including its response to COVID-19. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
He’s shepherded Guilford’s public health through the rise of rabies, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Triple E, H1N1, and even bioterrorism emergency preparedness and training. But when Dennis Johnson was hired as Guilford’s first full-time public health director back in 2000, he couldn’t have imagined he would be facing down a global pandemic in 2020.
“In public health school we studied about pandemics—the flu of 1918, Bubonic Plague...Those are all curious things that we felt would never happen again, because we have such an advanced medical system and vaccines for everything,” says Dennis, who retires this week after 20 years of dedicated service to the town.
The word “dedicated” aptly describes Dennis’s calm and professional approach to helping Guilford through the darkest hours and enduring days of COVID-19, which is still unresolved and awaiting a vaccine.
“It’s a learning curve, and the thing that’s so unique about COVID-19 is that it continues to deal with a lot of uncertainties to the community, because the ideology of the disease is not completely known at this point, and there are trends and new developments that occur almost weekly with the disease,” says Dennis. “So we don’t have it completely under control; we don’t have all the knowledge that we need to effectively contain it. There’s a lot of balancing, I think, for any health director in any community in Connecticut right now. They’re overloaded with the complexities and the concept-shifting of doing their duties.”
That said, the Guilford community and Connecticut are currently in a good place on the COVID-19 spectrum of public health and continued vigilance will be the key to keeping it that way, says Dennis.
“I think that the state’s in a good position and the town’s in a good position. I think we’re all delighted to see the reduction in the number of cases that occur in Connecticut. Hospital deaths have fallen, ICU admissions have fallen,” says Dennis. “But we can’t really drop our guard. We have to continue to be vigilant. Just because we’ve had several weeks without any high incidences or new cases, we can’t take that for granted.”
As to what’s involved in staying vigilant, “it’s a very simple explanation,” says Dennis. “We don’t have a vaccine right now. The next best thing to a vaccine is a face mask and social distancing, just basic public health precautions. They’re so simple that it’s almost ridiculous. But until a vaccine is available and immune bodies can be developed to prevent infection, the only thing we have right now is a barrier.”
Dennis has been working closely with town departments including the Board of Education (BOE) and Guilford Public Schools’ medical consultant to refine COVID-19 protocols and contingency plans. He’s also helped to chart a course for the Guilford community to continue to navigate COVID-19 response going forward.
“There’s a lot of activity right now around COVID-19,” says Dennis. “We’ve developed protocols and plans and we’ve tested them, and I think we’re in good shape to deal with any type of event that might occur in the schools and the community. So I feel comfortable that we have these plans in place.”
Even as he ends his official duties, Dennis plans to stick around the office from Sept. 8 to 18, helping the town’s next public health director, Sonia Marino, transition into the role. Marino most recently served as public health director for the towns of Westbrook and Killingworth.
“My replacement is well-trained. She has a master’s in public health and has worked as a health director in other communities. She’s very capable,” says Dennis. “I have a lot of unfinished business, so there’s going to be a couple of weeks of transition for the new health director, and I’m planning to stay here and work with her through that.”
Guilford’s public health director is appointed to each four-year term by the Board of Selectmen (BOS). Dennis thanks all of Guilford’s selectmen, past and present, for supporting him in the job for two decades.
“The Guilford selectmen are very supportive, and their hearts are really in making this a great community,” he says.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Dennis and his wife, Sharon, have lived in Guilford for 40 years.
“Originally I’m from Minnesota, so I came out here to Connecticut after grad school. My wife’s from New York, so we got married out here and we took our honeymoon in New England... and we just kind of fell in love with the quaint, charming, picturesque New England area, and the small towns,” says Dennis. “It was different from the wide open prairies of the Midwest. So we thought we’d try it out and see if it would stick, and that was 40 years ago. Our roots have gotten deep now, and we really enjoy it. It’s a diverse region, both culturally and landscape-wise.”
After he steps away from his municipal role, “I don’t think I’m going to return to public health right away,” Dennis says, laughing. “I haven’t had a vacation for almost nine months. So I’m going to take some time off, and see my new grandson out in Michigan. I basically want to try to catch my breath and collect my thoughts, and relax a bit if I can.”
Before he joined Guilford’s municipal team, Dennis served with East Shore District Health Department, which serves Branford, North Branford, and East Haven. He was hired by Guilford’s BOS 20 years and 3 months ago, starting the job on May 5, 2000.
“When I started here 20 years ago, Guilford was just a part-time health department,” says Dennis. “They had a part-time medical doctor and a sanitarian. But Guilford was experiencing, at the time, some growing pains and growing anxiety, and they felt that they needed a full-time health department with a full-time health director.”
Dennis’ first assignment was to meet state requirements for full-time municipal health departments. Full-time departments are required to have a director with either a medical degree or masters of public health and to provide a number of essential public health services to the community. Back in 2000, the number of required services was 8; it’s now grown to 10, says Dennis.
“At the time I started, Guilford didn’t have the eight services, so I brought those into the community. They included things like health education programs, health promotion activities, infectious disease follow up, and environmental health programs,” says Dennis. “So that was the first significant accomplishment, providing full-time public health services for the community.”
More needs were met through the years. After 9/11, municipal public health emergency response and preparedness and training, including preparing for bioterrorism attacks, came along. Small pox prevention plans became another added public health component. Additionally, Dennis and other public health directors across the state were meeting challenges arising from zoonotic (animal-carried) diseases that began to appear with more frequency.
“We starting thinking about rabies 20 years ago; Lyme disease is another we’ve had. I remember when we had to go around and collect dead birds and send them to the state for testing for West Nile virus,” says Dennis.
His department is also tasked with providing a long list of services touching many areas of responsibility and interfacing with numerous town departments along the way. To get an idea of the tip of the iceberg of regular responsibilities overseen by Guilford’s Department of Health, see the list of applications for permits, inspections and other services at the department’s page on the town website www.ci.guilford.ct.us.
“We have our regular duties, and then COVID is like a whole other full-time job,” says Dennis.
Most recently, he’s been busy assisting the BOE with back-to-school protocols and their practice, going to schools to visit with school nurses, and serving on panels to help answer questions. Dennis is also the COVID-19 point person for town employees.
“I get involved through human resources to evaluate their risk to their co-workers, when they can return to work; sickness evaluations for employees; safe handling practices in offices; safe layouts for reducing traffic in buildings,” he says, adding, “we work with restaurants to ensure they’re implementing the governor’s executive orders with regard to mask use, sanitation of food utensils, separation in distances...It’s a very involved responsibility at this time.”
Dennis says he’s grateful to have had Sanitarian Shirley Mickens and Administrative Assistant Darka Lindgren working with him to fulfill all of the department’s duties and responsibilities.
“I just feel that I have been so fortunate to have worked in Guilford, and to have had the ability to interact with such professional co-workers, department heads and selectmen,” says Dennis. “I’ve worked in a lot of municipal governments before, probably half a dozen or more municipalities between Minnesota and Connecticut, and Guilford is by far the best, most enlightening community I’ve ever worked in.”
On Sept. 4, many of Guilford’s municipal pros came out to bid Dennis farewell and say thanks with a drive-by parade past Town Hall South at 11 a.m. The parade, a complete surprise for Dennis, was arranged by Lindgren, who has worked together with Dennis for 20 years.
“Darka has a big heart. She’s an extremely devoted, hardworking employee—and she knows how to pull surprises off without anybody knowing about it. She’s just talented at surprising people,” says Dennis.
Lindgren pulled this surprise off to perfection by having First Selectman Matt Hoey in cahoots.
“It was a complete surprise. I didn’t expect it. I was tricked into it by the first selectman—Matt diverted me by asking me to attend a transition meeting at 11 o’clock,” says Dennis. “So I hurriedly prepared a report for him, and I wasn’t done with it when I saw him walking over.”
Sharon was also in on the surprise and stood by his side as a parade stocked with Guilford fire apparatus, police cruisers, public works trucks and other municipal, commercial and private vehicles passed by to pay tribute to Dennis, with horns and sirens sounding.
“It was just very touching,” says Dennis. “I was never so proud of all the co-workers that I’ve worked with the last 20 years that came by, and not only co-workers but contractors, members of the community and people in neighborhoods. It just made me realize how fortunate I’ve been to work in this town for 20 years, and to live in the town for 40 years.”