Public Health May Be Your Calling; It Is Mine

I am deeply honored and privileged to serve as Alabama’s State Health Officer. In my time in state government service, I have found my colleagues at every level to be professionals who are focused on our core values of providing the highest quality services to our clients with compassion, empathy, fairness, and respect.

In an effort to enhance the image of state public service, the National Association of State Personnel Executives initiated State Employee Recognition Day in May 2001 as an annual observance. Public health employees are among the many state workers deserving of recognition for their competency, integrity, confidentiality, and concern for clients and patients. Public health employees strive to maintain the public’s trust by being knowledgeable, competent, and honest.

As I reflect on my own career, I think about the endless possibilities for fulfillment as an individual I have enjoyed through the years and ways that opportunities to serve have opened up for me. I know that public health is a good fit with my education and values, just as it is with hundreds of others working in our department. As we recognize state employees this month, I would like to share with you some steps along my own career path.

I am a native of Talladega where my father is a retired pharmacist who operated a drug store for more than 50 years, my mother is a retired registered nurse, and my uncle was a family physician. For numerous reasons, I always wanted to go into medicine. I graduated from Harding University in Arkansas, then the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. After an internal medicine internship and residency, I returned to UAB to complete a fellowship in infectious diseases.

The infectious disease specialty has always been fascinating to me because of the variety of illnesses and disease processes that are involved, and because infections can occur in anyone at any time. Infectious disease is not a specialty that is focused on a single organ system or a single type of patient, and there are many other noninfectious illnesses that can initially appear to be infections, so there are always interesting mysteries to solve while trying to help those who are ill. Furthermore, it is often possible to help a patient return to normal existence before becoming ill. There are so may illnesses and injuries in the medical world that can remain forever with a patient, but most infections can actually be cured!

In 1996, I began my private practice in general infectious diseases and HIV medicine in Decatur, and I began serving as tuberculosis consultant with the Alabama Department of Public Health. My career in infectious disease helped acquaint me with the work of public health because my practice involved caring for patients with sexually transmitted diseases, vaccine-preventable illnesses, and disease outbreaks.

Over my years in private practice, I had many opportunities to work closely with public health officials and always appreciated the work done on behalf of underserved groups and those without other access to medical care. While living in Decatur, I was part of a group that helped to establish a medical clinic for low-income people, the Decatur-Morgan Community Free Clinic. The nonprofit clinic offers healthcare and dental care at no charge to low-income, medically uninsured residents, and relies on community volunteers. I served as the volunteer medical director there for about 13 years, as well as a board member and board chair. As a volunteer physician, I have served on international medical missions to Central America, South America, and Africa.

In October 2015, I entered state employment when I was appointed Area Health Officer for seven North Alabama counties which are now in the Northern Public Health District. I was appointed Acting State Health Officer in July 2017. When I became Acting Health Officer, there was somewhat of a learning curve for me to become more familiar with all aspects of public health. While I was familiar with many clinical aspects of the department such as tuberculosis control, I learned the finer points about environmental health concerns such as rabies control, food service inspections, emergency preparedness, and radiation protection. I earned a master’s degree in public health from the UAB School of Public Health, with a concentration in health policy. Then in February 2018, I was formally designated as Alabama’s 12th State Health Officer.

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has posed many challenges -- from beginning to learn about a novel coronavirus that emerged at the end of 2019, through the early stages of the pandemic, then the rapid spread of the virus, through the development and deployment of effective vaccines, to the emergence of new variants as the virus evolved, and finally with the declaration of the end of the pandemic. None of us could have ever predicted the magnitude of the COVID-19 outbreak and the length of the pandemic, but our employees stepped up in every way possible to safeguard the health of all Alabamians. Public health employees faced the possibility of contracting this infection themselves, yet they were heroes in providing care. More than 21,000 Alabama residents have died due to COVID-19—a number greater than the population of my birthplace, Talladega.

On State Employee Recognition Day, May 8, and during State Employee Recognition Week, May 5-11, I hope everyone will take every opportunity to thank state employees for their dedication to public service and the invaluable contributions they make to the quality of life in our state. I am honored to work alongside them and commend them for their commitment to the public health of our communities and state.

Scott Harris, M.D., M.P.H.
State Health Officer