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Johnson County’s health director is stepping down. He’s the latest departure in a national wave

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Julie Denesha
/
KCUR 89.3
Areola became health director in March 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, replacing former director Lougene Marsh.

Director Sanmi Areola plans to resign in November. Data compiled by Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press show at least 303 state or local public health leaders in 41 states resigned, retired or were fired between April 1, 2020, and Sept. 12, 2021.

After two and a half years as director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, Sanmi Areola is leaving the post in November for a job outside the county.

Areola was not available for comment. But Barbara Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the department, said a search for his replacement will begin soon. The search will be led by the county manager’s office.

“He's done a fabulous job,” Mitchell said. “(His) new position just came up and at times you just have to follow the opportunities.”

Mitchell did not say where Areola was heading. Deputy department director Charlie Hunt will lead the agency until a permanent director is named.

Areola became director in March 2020, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, succeeding Lougene Marsh. Before that, Areola, who has a Ph.D. in environmental toxicology from Texas Southern University, spent 17 years with the Metro Public Health Department in Nashville. He served there in multiple capacities, including as deputy health director.

His resignation comes as local health departments across the country experience dramatic turnover. Data compiled by Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press show at least 303 state or local public health leaders in 41 states resigned, retired or were fired between April 1, 2020, and Sept. 12, 2021.

In December 2020, Gianfranco Pezzino abruptly resigned as Shawnee County Health director after county commissioners voted to roll back the county’s health orders. Pezzino cited exhaustion and frustration that politics were overriding what he deemed to be necessary health actions.

A recent systematic review of studies conducted during the pandemic examined how longstanding labor shortages in the health industry were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

People leaving their positions most often cited a fear of COVID-19 exposure, psychological stress, adverse working conditions and lack of organizational support.

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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