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New Allen County Health Commissioner talks COVID and other matters

Allen County Department of Health

On July 18, Dr. Thomas Gutwein was named Allen County's new health commissioner.

Dr. Gutwein earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Indiana University and graduated from the IU School of Medicine in 1990. He has worked as the director of emergency medicine at Parkview since July 1993, and also serves as president of Professional Emergency Physicians P.C.

He replaces Dr. Matthew Sutter, who was in the role for two years and helped navigate the Allen County community through COVID-19.

WBOI’s Zach Bernard had a chance to talk with Dr. Gutwein over Zoom about current public health concerns, and what he hopes to achieve as the county's health commissioner.

Here is the transcript of their call:

Zach Bernard: First of all, congratulations on being chosen as the County Health Commissioner.

Dr. Gutwein: Thanks. I'm really excited about the opportunity. I think we have an excellent health department. And I just wanted to join that great team and contribute in any way that I can.

Bernard: Some observers might say that it's not a very enviable job in 2022, if you consider the political toxicity that sort of bled into health care during the pandemic, what made you want this role?

Dr. Gutwein: So I've lived in Fort Wayne for almost 30 years, and I've always been interested in public health as an emergency physician, I have worked in seeing these people that have difficulties with certain diseases, certain problems that that I feel like we can maybe help a little bit more, there are a lot of great processes and places and locations in Fort Wayne to really help these people. So I think some of it is just educating the public on what's available, because I think the health department does a great job.

Bernard: COVID-19 is still around, even though hospitalizations are at a pretty safe level right now. Cases do seem to be going up. And that doesn't include reported home tests. So what advice does the department offer to those who are still trying to avoid the virus?

Dr. Gutwein: Yeah, I think the biggest way you can avoid the virus is, is use some common sense. Try to avoid big gatherings. Try to wear a mask if you're immunosuppressed, especially.

And if you're concerned about getting the virus at all, keeping your distance from people is still something you know, we started this 6- foot distancing thing back in 2020, it still holds true.

And then the other thing that I see that I think we should acknowledge is we need to continue to use cleaning techniques, we need to make sure that we're washing our hands better, we're cleaning off surfaces, those types of things will just help prevent the spread.

And then if you're sick, then you really need to stay home. And you really need to isolate. So we count on those people to really understand this COVID virus that we're seeing today. This variant is not super lethal, but it's super contagious. Keep home when you have just a bad tickle in your throat, scratchy throat, runny nose, those types of things get tested. If you're positive, then avoid other people.

Bernard:I want to use that to segue into my next question. So you kind of touched on this a little bit. But individuals who test positive for the virus, you mentioned that they should stay home and wait that out. CDC guidance got kind of muddy over the last few months with regard to what people should do. I think there's some confusion. How long should individuals stay home if they can track the virus?

Dr. Gutwein: Yeah, the recommendation is still to stay home for five days after your symptoms have started.

And if you still have symptoms, especially a fever, and you're still requiring medications to control that fever, then you need to continue to stay home. So by the time you leave the house, you should be as symptom free as possible. Certainly not have had a fever in the last 24-hours and not be continuing to take any antibiotics or medication for the fever.

Bernard: Another thing for people around the world that they're concerned about right now is the spread of monkeypox. And the CDC says almost a few dozen Hoosiers have been afflicted with the illness. So it's not some imaginary boogeyman anymore. What should people know about it?

Dr. Gutwein: So monkeypox is something that is being monitored very closely. As you mentioned, there are, you know, 30 to 40 cases so far in the state of Indiana, the Indiana State Department of Health is actively engaged in contacting people that are at high risk for monkeypox. They're managing that right now. I think the supply of vaccination medications for the monkeypox will be increasing over the next four to eight weeks.

And then definitely by the end of the year, next year, we're looking at a lot more surplus of vaccinations if needed. So I don't think it's an overly concerning virus to be worried about. I think it's something that using good hygiene and avoiding people that have potential symptoms or signs of monkeypox is the most important thing.

Bernard: There is a special session largely focused on abortion rights in Indiana right now, which is provoking a lot of different feelings in the area. Obviously, you in the Health Department would be beholden to policies that are enacted by the states. But for individuals that are fearful and concerned right now, what is your message to them as the county's leading health authority?

Dr. Gutwein: If you're concerned about the legislation that's going on at the statehouse, I think that it would be good for you to advocate for the side that you're on as a health department, we will continue to treat people within the scope of the law, and we will support them in any way, shape or form that we can.

Bernard: When you were announced as the latest appointee for the county health commissioner role. I did hear your introductory remarks, you said that you wanted Fort Wayne and Allen County to be known as a healthy place. If you travel out west or if you travel anywhere you want people commenting on what a healthy place this is, what are some of your goals and plans for getting us there?

Dr. Gutwein: I think that we have to dive in. I'm actually going to spend the first 60 days on this job really learning and I want to learn more about what we're doing. I'm doing in depth reviews with all the different departments that we have.

And then I'll spend the next 30 days on doing some more planning but I think that there are a lot of indicators that are marked across the state that states measure themselves against from other states.

And so we need to take a close look at those things. And that's the amount of smoking obesity The amount of sexually transmitted diseases, lead poisoning and kids all those types of public health ideas or public health issues, we need to closely monitor and then not only just monitor, but I want to monitor our effectiveness at improving those things.

So how many kids do we have with lead poisoning? And how many this year? And how many do we have next year taken from the positive group to the negative group so that we can really fix that problem. So working on fixing those problems, and preventing the spread of those types of diseases and having a healthy environment are the most important things because I think that Fort Wayne is a great place to live. I've been here like I said, for a long time.

And I think we want to make the city you know, we keep it economically gone, keep it building, keep it growing, but we also need that health component and to have your health is one of the most important things you can have in life. So if you don't have your health, then you're going to really suffer so we need to give that opportunity to as many Allen County residents as possible.

Bernard: Dr. Gutwein, is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

Dr. Gutwein: No, I think that I would just reinforce that. I think that you know, we have a great health department. I'm coming on board to supplement what they're doing. And then also just to build, maybe, bring in some additional ideas and enthusiasm to help make this a better community.

Zach joined 89.1 WBOI as a reporter and local host for All Things Considered, and hosted Morning Edition for the past few years. In 2022, he was promoted to Content Director.