PORT TOWNSEND — Dr. Allison Berry is now the public health officer for both Clallam and Jefferson counties.
Former Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke will continue to assist the departments as a deputy health officer, but will be fully transitioning out the role of health officer over the next month.
The Jefferson County Board of Health voted unanimously on Thursday afternoon to approve the resolution that appointed the two health officers to their new respective roles.
“It’s an honor to step into this position,” said Berry, who is also the Clallam County health officer.
“I take public service incredibly seriously and I take the role as an independent scientific advisor for this region very seriously.
“I’m hopeful that I can bring a lot of strength to the position and that commitment to scientific independence.”
The county is not required to conduct a full public search to hire a new health officer and the decision regarding the hiring and firing of health officers is up to the board of health, said Philip Hunsucker, chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney for Jefferson County.
The seven-member board of health consists of all three county commissioners, one representative each of Jefferson Healthcare commission and the Port Townsend City Council and two citizens at large.
The contract negotiations regarding Berry’s eventual salary for Jefferson County are still in discussion. She declined to comment on her current salary with Clallam, due to possible changes stemming from her appointment to Jefferson County, she said.
Berry has Locke’s full support in stepping into the role as health officer for the entire North Olympic Peninsula, a position he also held from 1996 to 2015, Locke said.
“You not only have to find someone who is a physician, you also have to find someone who is up speed on Covid,” Locke said. “In that respect, Dr. Berry is the ideal candidate.
“It really works well, both counties together are kind of a solid full-time job. This was the best way to guarantee the continuity of services.”
Locke, who is 70, had hinted to Berry about a potential transition over the past few years before formally approaching her about it about two months ago, Berry said.
“Dr. Locke has been talking about his plans to retire for some time,” Berry said. “I think he’s been scouting out for a suitable replacement for some time.
“I think he’s very passionate about the department and making sure that there’s good continuity of operations. I think when I said I was interested in the role, I think he became more comfortable that now was a good time to step down.”
As deputy, Locke will continue to be on hand to assist Berry with Clallam and Jefferson public health issues, and fill in for her as needed, as well as for the health officers in Kitsap and San Juan counties, as the four have partnered to assist each other for years, Locke said.
Locke will continue to be the public health and safety officer for the Jamestown S’Klallam and wants to continue to support the public health departments instead of fully retiring, as he has appreciated his long career of 45 years as a physician and 37 years as a health officer.
“I long felt when I reached the age of 70, that would be the time to really cut down on full time work and I have passed that milestone and it played a large factor in this decision,” Locke said.
“I have a lot of other things in my life that the demands of the pandemic haven’t allowed me to be fully be involved in.
“I have grandchildren and I’m really looking forward to having time for really those most important relationships in life.”
While Berry is officially the Jefferson County Health Officer, Locke will share the responsibilities of the role with her over the next month to help smooth the transition as she steps in and he eases out.
“I think it will be a pretty seamless transition,” Locke said. “It’s been a real honor to serve and my highest priority right now is to support Dr. Berry as she takes on these new responsibilities.
“I’ve been working closely with her for the last five years and I have the highest respect and admiration for her and her professional skills and her commitment, especially to the under-served,” he continued.
“I think she’s just done an extraordinary job trying to be the health officer for everyone in Clallam County.”
While both noted that the Clallam and Jefferson public health departments have worked well together through the years, each county does have its own challenges and priorities, such as political differences and poverty levels.
The county public health departments will continue to operate separately from each other, Berry said.
While Jefferson has a more experienced staff, the Clallam staff has been dedicated and creative in solving problems as they arise, Berry said.
“We just figure out a way to get things done,” Berry said. “There’s a lot of good that can be shared between both departments.”
Berry is glad that Locke will be able to assist, especially if the COVID-19 pandemic worsens again. She has joined the decision-making process for the department and will join Locke on Mondays for his 9:45 a.m. briefings with the county commissioners regarding the pandemic.
“Transitions in a pandemic really need to be handled with care,” she said. “We need to make sure there are no balls dropped in this transition and I think we can do that.”
Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected]