Loyal civil servant kept his finger on town’s pulse

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent


After nearly four decades as a Health Department employee, the last 17 as the chief, John Sarnas, 64, will be retiring on April 1.

Mayor Alberto Santos said the town is soliciting applications for a replacement. Submission deadline is Feb. 21.

“We have a need for a full-time person – not someone to share with another town – who will be asked, since our staff is limited, not only to oversee the many services provided to the public but also, in some cases, to implement them,” the mayor said.

The list of health-related programs in Kearny is many and varied, including from infant vaccinations, flu and rabies shots, Women Infants & Children (WIC), Meals on Wheels, sanitation inspections, dog licensing, animal control, coordinating with the county on mosquito control and other health issues, among others. Sarnas also chairs the N.J. Mosquito Commission.

“We also have a lot of work to do on health education,” Santos added. Sarnas, who began his long career with Kearny as a health inspector on May 1, 1974, is only the fourth health officer in the town’s history since the title came into being. His predecessors were: Edward Grosvenor (1978-1997), Walter Nicol (1954-1978) and Amos Field (1939-1954).

“The profession has advanced greatly,” Sarnas said. “When I started, all you needed was a bachelor’s degree but [since then], the state has required you to have a master’s degree in public health. Even the requirements for sanitarians have been upgraded.” Sarnas got his master’s of science degree in health administration from the former Jersey City State College.

That change, Sarnas said, reflects the evolving responsibilities associated with the office. Years ago, he said, public health matters were pretty much confined to milk and meat inspections but today it’s a multi-faceted job, extending from counseling immigrants on social services to dealing with bio-terrorism threats.

Staying on top of it all has been the challenge over the years and, for Sarnas, “the best thing you can do is expect the unexpected.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, for example, when trains were stopped and traffic into Jersey City was blocked, Sarnas recalls the department sending its senior citizen buses to the Belleville Pike to watch for anybody who might have been crossing the meadows.

When the anthrax scare hit in 2001, “we got calls from people all over town who thought they might have gotten it.” Fortunately, all were unfounded, he said.

There was the “swine flu” pandemic that began surfacing in 2009 and subsequent years and the H1N1 vaccine that the state Department of Health made available to counteract it. “My nurses did a tremendous job in getting our kids vaccinated,” Sarnas said.

Environmental degradation has been a thorn in the town’s side, Sarnas said. At one point, he said, “there were 40 sites in Kearny where hexavalent chromium [a toxin that can cause lung cancer] was used as filler material in the meadows.”

During the ‘70s, a representative of the state Department of Environmental Protection told Sarnas that the agency had so much work to handle in the area that Kearny could, by itself, support a DEP office. That didn’t happen but several federal Superfund cleanup sites were designated in the meadows area.

Since then, Sarnas said, “we’ve had marked improvement in air pollution and ground contamination.”

Several times, the department was confronted by foodborne viral outbreaks.

Sometime during the early ‘80s, Sarnas said, about 20 residents of Harrison, Kearny and North Arlington all were diagnosed with a hepatitis A liver infection. After several weeks spent checking which eating establishments they’d patronized, Sarnas said he was able to narrow down the source to a Kearny deli, one of whose employees had contracted the virus in Pennsylvania. Her job at the deli involved slicing cold cuts and she’d passed on the virus making sandwiches for customers, Sarnas said.

Another food-related episode that happened during the ‘80s was an alarm triggered by the former West Hudson Hospital in Kearny reporting “over a dozen” youngsters being brought to the E.R. this particular June weekend with vomiting and diarrhea, triggered by a streptococcal infection.

It turned out that all the kids had attended a Portuguese Cultural Festival hosted by Franklin School that Friday, featuring ethnic foods prepared by the parents, one of whom had made Brazilian chicken salad which had been left unrefrigerated under a hot sun, Sarnas said. But, even worse, he said, the woman who prepared the food had an exposed cut, which apparently contaminated the salad.

In the ‘90s a man died from bacterial meningitis – the only casualty – and it happened on a holiday – Independence Day, Sarnas said. “We made sure everyone in the family and close friends had antibiotics. They survived.”

When cases of West Nile virus were starting to be reported in the early 2000s, Sarnas said that health staffers “saw crows dying or walking like they were drunk” that tested positive for the mosquito- borne disease. No human fatalities were reported.

“In the last 20 years, we’ve had five cases of bacterial viruses – all adults – reported,” Sarnas said. “For a town of about 40,000 people, that’s about right [statistically speaking].” Two were fatal, he said.

During his tenure, Sarnas said the number of dog bites has been reduced “because of a great enforcement program” by a vigilant “homegrown” health staff.

The department has also arranged for periodic visits by a mobile dental clinic, furnished by the North Hudson Community Action Corp., to treat folks with little or no insurance.

A big demand on the Health Department today, Sarnas said, is referring newcomers and “a lot” of undocumented residents for social services, such as food stamps, welfare and hospitalization. For that population, he said, “This is the first place you’re going to go. We provide vaccines for children going to school.”

As another of its many responsibilities, the department also inspects run-down properties and, when necessary, issues violation notices for unattended weeds and overgrowth and any public health nuisances.

“We also run six blood banks a year, averaging collections of 200 units annually,” Sarnas said.

And the department has continued to provide these services, even with its ranks thinned via attrition. In 1974, “we had 12 to 14 on staff, including six public health nurses and four inspectors, all full-time. Now we’re down to three part-time nurses and two inspectors, one full-time and one part-time,” he said.

When Sarnas departs, the one thing he says he’ll miss most is “working with good people.” In his retirement years, he plans to attend to home gardening and continue volunteering at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Kearny.

Sarnas will receive a yearly pension of $84,319 from the state Public Employees Retirement System, according to the state Treasury Department.

The Observer Staff