SARATOGA COUNTY — One of the key people overseeing Saratoga County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is retiring, and county leaders are taking the occasion to upgrade the position to one that will be filled by a doctor.
County Public Health Director Catherine Duncan’s plans to retire on July 31 became public knowledge this week, but county officials have known about her plans since May, and have decided to upgrade the position to “commissioner of public health,” with broader public health responsibilities.
The new commissioner’s post has been advertised by the county Department of Human Resources with a starting salary of $132,446, nearly $30,000 more than Duncan is earning. Candidates are required to be physicians registered to practice in New York state with administrative experience or a master’s degree in public health. The application deadline has already passed.
The appointment will be for a six-year term and will be made by County Administrator Spencer Hellwig, subject to approved by county Board of Supervisors. Whoever is appointed will also be subject to approval by the state Department of Health, which has been pushing the county to upgrade the position and the county Health Department.
State law requires all counties with more than 250,000 residents to provide a wide range of public health services through a department headed by a medical doctor. Saratoga County’s population is estimated at 240,000, and growing.
Based on the county’s continuing growth, the state has been pushing for the last decade to upgrade the position and expand the county Health Department into new areas, including environmental health and sanitation, which includes restaurant inspections. Those inspections are now handled by the state Health Department, and the transfer of responsibilities is expected to be phased in over a couple of years, though that transition has been slowed by the pandemic.
Duncan, who has worked for county public health for 26 years, has been the department’s director since 2015. Over her career, the department has evolved from one primarily focused on providing public health nursing services to one having a broader mission of overseeing public health issues.
Duncan is a registered nurse and completed a master’s degree in public health administration in order to get state approval for her appointment in 2015.
Duncan has been widely praised for her handling of the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has been among the leaders regularly present at the county’s emergency operations since, which it established immediately after the pandemic reached the county in March.
Saratoga County has had 17 COVID-19 deaths, the fewest among the major counties in the Capital Region. The 650 confirmed cases in the county is also the lowest among the region’s four large-population counties.
The reasons Saratoga County has fared better during the pandemic than other counties are uncertain, but studies, including an analysis of U.S. Census data released Wednesday by the Center for Economic Growth in Albany, has found the county has one of the healthiest populations in the state, with relatively low levels of risk factors like obesity and smoking.
Duncan is departing at another time of transition for the county Health Department. After decades of being located in a building on Woodlawn Avenue in Saratoga Springs, sometime in early August the department is expected to move to the new county Public Safety Building in Milton, located near the County Jail and animal shelter.