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Government / WBAA

After over two years of COVID and changes to state law, Tippecanoe County appoints new health officer

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Dr. Greg Loomis standing before the county commissioners (Screenshot from feed of the meeting)

For the first time in nine years, Tippecanoe County has appointed a new health officer.

Dr. Jeremy Adler served in the position through over two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, but announced his departure earlier this year. His replacement, Dr. Gregory Loomis, started this week.

Dr. James Bien is the president of the Tippecanoe County Board of Health, which interviewed candidates for the position. He said the pandemic put health officers into the spotlight in a way they hadn’t been before.

“Until this whole COVID experience, health officers were kind of unknown in the community unless you were interested in the work,” he said. “Dr. Adler obviously became visible and needed to be an effective communicator. I think that experience influenced the kind of characteristics we were looking for in the next person, recognizing that they were likely – at least for the time being – going to need to be visible in the community.”

Loomis is the first health officer hired since the passage of Senate Bill 5 in 2021. That legislation gave county commissioners the power to veto health ordinances as well as final approval over applicants for the officer position. At the time, critics worried the bill took power away from health officers to enact important health restrictions – including mask mandates and capacity limits – and made those decisions more about politics than public health.

During the county commissioner's meeting approving Loomis, it was clear the pandemic also shaped commissioner views on the role.

“Thank you for stepping up,” Commissioner Tom Murtaugh told Loomis. “After what you’ve seen in the past few years and what the county has faced I’m thrilled we have someone of your caliber.”

Bien said that SB5 and the requirement for the commissioners’ approval for the health officer position didn’t impact the selection process.

“I don’t think that played that much of a role,” he said. “We were sensitive to – we wanted somebody who obviously was going to be endorsed by the commissioners. We didn’t want to make a decision where we made a public gesture of endorsement by the board and then the commissioners didn’t accept it. But I didn’t have any candidates that I didn’t think would be acceptable.”

Loomis, a retired neurosurgeon, said the pandemic has certainly thrown the role of health officer into the spotlight. But he said he doesn’t want the role to go back to one that works more behind the scenes.

“To be truthful with you I rather it not be. I think holding people’s feet to the fire sometimes helps us do our best work,” Loomis said.

He said the health department, much like the community, is tired – and he plans to make himself available to help out and answer questions.

“These are incredibly talented, hardworking people that are tired right now, kind of like our community,” Loomis said. “I think our community is going through a post-COVID, post-political, PTSD moment. We need to heal that.”

Loomis said that in terms of Dr. Adler’s handling of the pandemic, he would not have done anything differently. But Loomis appears to differ from Adler on one key issue: masking. As school districts began to announce mask-optional policies in February, Adler continued to advise mask-wearing for students and staff.

Loomis said masking in schools isn’t the way to go.

“If you want to wear an N95 24/7 that’s a choice. Like wearing the color blue. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “But I don’t believe in mask mandates and I certainly will not be behind a mask mandate if that comes down our way.”

Bien said the community is at a different stage of the pandemic than when Adler was recommending masks.

“I think those differences would matter more if we were at similar positions, because then you’d have two really different perspectives on how this community needs to be made safe,” he said.

Dr. Adler did not respond to WBAA’s request for comment.

Loomis said the first issue he hopes to tackle as a health officer is finding ways to lower the county's infant mortality rates.