Saratoga County supervisors on Tuesday named Dr. Daniel J. Kuhles the county’s first county commissioner of health, putting a medical doctor in charge of the county’s public health efforts for the first time in the middle of the pandemic.
Kuhles practices family medicine in Saratoga Springs, but previously worked for the New York State Department of Health, where he was director of the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control. The appointment will take effect on Nov. 24.
The appointment was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors at a meeting in Ballston Spa. With the county’s population growing toward 250,000, the state has been pressuring the county for years to convert what was originally a public health nursing service into a full-scale public health agency, which must be headed by a doctor, as the Albany County Department of Health is.
While the transition to a doctor-headed department has been in planning for years, it is happening at a time when the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic means county-level public health efforts are receiving a higher priority than in the past. It has been left to counties to oversee COVID-19 testing, tracking of trends, and contact tracing.
Kuhles, 47, is a graduate of the SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. In addition to having worked for the state Department of Health, he previously worked at the Nassau County Department of Health.
“Obviously he looks highly qualified, and he has the great respect of the public health community,” said Northumberland Supervisor Willard Peck.
The hiring of Kuhles follows the retirement this past summer of public health director Cathy Duncan, a registered nurse by background, who played a major part in the county’s initial emergency response to the pandemic. Cathy Medick is the current acting director.
The commissioner position comes with a starting salary of $132,446, nearly $30,000 more than Duncan is earning. Candidates were required to have administrative experience or a public health degree in addition to a medical degree.
The appointment is for a six-year term, working under the oversight of the state Department of Health as well as the county leadership.
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.
The switch to a full county Health Department will mean expanding into new areas in the next couple of years, including environmental health and sanitation, which includes restaurant inspections. Those inspections are now handled by the state Health Department, but DOH has notified the county it will stop doing them at the end of 2021.
As of Tuesday, Saratoga County has had 1,741 confirmed COVID-19 cases since March, with 21 deaths, according to state and county health agencies. Like much of the nation, the county is seeing an increase in case numbers — a “second wave.” There were 47 cases newly confirmed on Monday, the state Department of Health reported.
County Public Health, which was based in Saratoga Springs for many years, also moved this summer to the county’s new Paul E. Lent Public Safety Building in the town of Milton.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the board appointed county Deputy Commissioner of Public Works Thomas A. Speziale of Malta as acting commissioner of public works. He will temporarily replace Keith R. Manz, who retired as commissioner on Nov. 11.
Speziale is a 27-year employee of the Department of Public Works, and has been deputy commissioner for the last nine years. A search is underway for a permanent commissioner.