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The Board of Health supports Health Director Gina Armstrong's pitch for the new position.

Pittsfield Health Department Wants Health Educator on Staff

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Board of Health believes it needs to do more to promote public health. 
 
The county routinely ranks toward the bottom of the annual community health rankings. There are issues with a high rate of premature death, food insecurity, and children living in poverty. E-cigarette usage among teens is increasing. The rate of marijuana usage among teens is higher than most of the state. Children are more at risk for lead poisoning here than elsewhere. And the rate of opioid-related deaths remains high.
 
"We continue to be at the higher end and over the last several years, Berkshire County has ranked 12 out of 14, where we don't want to be. We want to be on the other end," Health Director Gina Armstrong said.
 
A common theme to address those health issues is education so despite being requested to come into the budget process with level services, Armstrong is pitching a new position in the department to promote education. She's asking for $39,568 to fund a public health education coordinator. 
 
"There is a lot of potential to build upon the good work that has been done through Health Pittsfield Partnership," Armstrong said.
 
The Board of Health is backing Armstrong's proposal, but she next has to get Mayor Linda Tyer's support in the budget proposal. After that, she would need the City Council's support. 
 
Armstrong envisions the job to take on five specific areas. 
  1. The person would coordinate meetings and support the Pittsfield Health Partnership.
  2. Work heavily on social media to promote health initiatives.
  3. Run a healthy housing campaign to increase the amount of smoke-free housing. Armstrong said more than 50 percent of the non-owner-occupied rental properties do not have smoke-free policies in place leading to increased secondhand smoke.
  4. Take a large role in substance-abuse prevention including working with clinicians, parents, the marijuana retailers, and education the risk factors.
  5. General outreach to the community on various health matters.
The focus is to address health issues that have been documented but the department has little resources to get involved in. The department hopes to move the needle on those health rankings.
 
Armstrong also cited the United Way's Prevention Needs Survey, which asks students in the county's schools about substance abuse and other topics. The results showed that 39 percent of Pittsfield's 12th-graders have smoked marijuana, which is above the city's peers according to Armstrong.
 
The survey also showed a change in parental attitudes toward substance abuse: It is becoming more favorable than in previous years and above national rates. Armstrong said that is partially because of the legalization of marijuana.
 
"That has certainly has changed parental attitudes," she said.
 
Armstrong said when the legalization rolled out in Colorado, there were multiple and significant campaigns promoting safety, such as driving under the influences. She said the city doesn't have the resources to roll out such a campaign locally.
 
Board of Health member Brad Gordon said the city could use some of the marijuana tax toward safety and health campaigns. City Councilor Christopher Connell has pitched using half of the marijuana tax for road construction -- not for potholes -- and the city had already agreed to set aside 50 percent for stabilization. But Gordon thinks a good use of those funds would be on targeted prevention campaigns to put up a firewall between the city's youth and the substance.
 
"This is so aligned with that that I would hope we could have that discussion where a portion of that tax revenue is allocated to a position like this. There is a link between the two," Gordon said.
 
Another aspect would be on smoking. Armstrong said the emergence of e-cigarettes has changed the game dramatically. She said 40 percent of the city's youth reported trying e-cigarettes and 20 percent reported being regular users.
 
"We thought we were making some headway in the reduction of the cigarette usage rate but now with the electronic cigarette market, the cigarette-market rate has far surpassed what the rate ever was," Armstrong said. "This position could do a lot around tobacco prevention as well."
 
The city's opioid overdose rate remains high and there are significant efforts being done in the county to address the epidemic. But, Armstrong said this position can bolster those efforts as well.
 
Berkshire Health Systems also reported high-priority health areas for the city that include violence prevention, obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, cancer, cardiovascular health, and strokes, among others. Armstrong believes this educator position could play a big roll in sharing information and resources around those topics.
 
And lastly, Armstrong sees a need for childhood lead poisoning prevention. She said Pittsfield is one of 19 communities in the state identified as being at high risk for lead poisoning, largely led by the older housing stock and many people living in poverty. 
 
"A lot of it will be through social media. That is what we are really lacking," Armstrong said of rolling out such education campaigns in the city.
 
Armstrong said all of those issues are well documented and there are proven methods for addressing them. She said the educator could also be responsible for finding and writing grants to implement those strategies.
 
"We've been pretty restricted in pursuing some of the grant opportunities because we don't have the staff capacity in the department," she said.
 
In bigger cities, there are full departments aimed to promote health and wellness but she is looking to start with just one additional position.
 
"I think it is targeted to attack those problems head-on," Board of Health member Steve Smith said.
 
If approved, Armstrong said she'd be looking for somebody with a bachelor's degree in either health or education and and three to five years of experience.
 
The Board of Health voted on Wednesday in favor of the position. The board hopes its support will help convince the administration and the City Council to fund the position.

Tags: board of health,   health & wellness,   smoking awareness,   substance abuse,   

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Pittsfield at-Large City Councilor Candidates Answer Questions

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Candidate for the four a-large City Council seats participated in a forum Monday at Berkshire Community College as they made a push for votes before election day.
 
Seven candidates fielded questions at a forum hosted by BCC, in partnership with the Pittsfield Gazette and Pittsfield Community Television, which recorded the forum. The moderator was Shawn Serre, executive director of PCTV.
 
After some opening statements, the candidates were asked to pick a number that prompted a question. After three candidates answered the question the next candidate in line chose a new number. At the end of the session, candidates were given two minutes to answer questions they did not get or to expand on the answers they gave.
 
One of the first questions brought forward was about Mayor Linda Tyer's proposed home improvement plan that would have allowed qualified residents to apply for money from the Pittsfield Economic Development Fund to make small improvements to their homes.
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