After more than three decades and dozens of public health crises, Allan is retiring. He reflects on his career with 3News senior health correspondent Monica Robins.
PARMA, Ohio — Terry Allan has always said, “Public health is the greatest story ever told. But he and his team at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health have been at the center of many public health stories over the years.
I know because I am one of those who reported them.
He and I often talked about the “next” pandemic, but neither of us thought we would see it in our careers. But just in case, we made plans. I asked Allan to help me write a pandemic playbook for WKYC.
After every public health crisis we went through, I updated the plan. This certainly came in handy in Feb 2020. Still, Allan was on my speed dial to check. Because of this planning, we were one of the first resorts nationwide to begin safety protocols long before anyone was sent home for lockdown.
There’s a reason we call him the “crisis captain.” Because there is something to be said for experience and influence. To understand Allan, one need only look back at what he has faced over the past two decades.
I first encountered him in March 2001 during a Legionella outbreak at the Ford Brook Park plant.
“The union supported us in the process and the factory closed for a while,” Allan said.
Long enough for the factory to be thoroughly cleaned and lessons learned.
“Ford developed a national water management plan that is used by the automotive industry worldwide as a result of this process, so something good has come out of it in terms of preventing exposure” , Allan said.
A few months later, 9-11, and Anthrax and Smallpox bioweapon fears emerged. This led to a pandemic playbook and a plan for mass vaccination clinics. Public health also got a seat in the command center.
“There was a cascade that really started with public health planning across the country. We weren’t involved in emergency incident command response in this way before,” Allan said. .
In 2002, the West Nile virus invaded Ohio, which was then of SARS concern. Allan took office as health commissioner in 2004, where he would inaugurate Ohio’s indoor smoking ban, deal with an outbreak of norovirus and the 2009 swine flu (H1N1) outbreak. , where the mass vaccination plan was first used.
Then in 2014, a nurse working at a Dallas hospital was exposed to Ebola. She returned home to Akron and caused panic in northeast Ohio.
“We had many, many days with sleepless nights, but luckily we didn’t see any transmission. We were very busy identifying potential people on planes who might have been exposed. And we were busy trying to calm fears,” Allan said.
Over the years, he and his team have also had to deal with the opiate epidemic, cluster outbreaks of bacterial meningitis and, of course, poor flu seasons.
And then 2020 arrived. The first global pandemic in a century. A coronavirus called COVID-19. A virus that science had not seen before in the way it attacked humans in a myriad of ways. And no treatment available.
“We were flying blind at first. We just had to follow what we thought were the best recommendations of what was available. We’re trying to provide guidance to our long-term care facilities to try to reduce the exposures of our most vulnerable,” Allan said.
The first three cases in Ohio were in Cuyahoga County. Cuyahoga County has also borne the brunt of case numbers throughout the pandemic.
I asked Allan when he first had the day off.
“It was at least a year, I worked, I think, every day for a year, but so did you, and a lot of other people too,” Allan said.
In two years, his team answered 60,000 telephone calls for simple information. Not including contact tracing. He held more than a hundred press briefings.
“Over 4,000 people have died, we’ve had over three times as many people quarantined, so we’re talking about the order of five, 600,000 people who have been affected,” Allan said.
Some decisions, including those relating to schools and masks, have drawn heavy criticism.
Allan followed the science and says it worked.
“Sometimes we have to make tough decisions and recommendations, but we do it to keep people out of hospital and we do it to save lives,” he said.
I asked what would haunt him.
“The 4,000 people who died, the early death that happened in nursing homes while we were still trying to figure out what was going on,” he said.
The accomplishments that make him proud might surprise you.
Like reducing the number of septic tanks in the county by more than half.
“Which reduced a lot of illicit discharges or communities replaced septic tanks to reduce illicit discharges, cross-connections with sewage going into streams and into the lake. You know, that’s pretty cool,” said Allan said.
Under his leadership, the rate of lead poisoning among children in Cuyahoga County dropped 76 percent. There was a 28% drop in heart attacks after the indoor smoking ban was put in place.
Allan leaves after 33 years in public health, including 18 years as Cuyahoga County Health Commissioner. He will tell you that his fondest memories are with those who worked with him on the front lines, those to whom he credits the work that made a difference.
“Above all, for me, it has been an honor to serve with the staff, this staff, especially over the past two years,” he said.
Terry Allan will retire from the Cuyahoga County Board of Health on Thursday, ushering in a new era under new health commissioner Dr. Roderick (Rod) Harris.
Harris previously served as deputy director of the Allegheny County Health Department in Pittsburgh. Harris is a Cleveland native who began his career in public health with CCBH in environmental health.