By Ron Leir
Another familiar face will soon be vanishing from this township’s roster of key leadership posts.
On Dec. 1, Karen Comer will retire as the Harrison health officer after 25 years and five months in the job.
Her departure follows the retirements earlier this year of Municipal Court Judge John Johnson and Fire Chief Tom Dolaghan, with their replacements earning quite a bit less as the town aims for a leaner payroll.
And the Harrison Housing Authority continues to search for a new executive director to replace Michael Rodgers, who was abruptly fired more than a year ago. An interim director is now at the helm.
After Comer leaves, the Harrison Board of Health will look to negotiate an interlocal services agreement with North Bergen to contract for that community’s health officer, Rich Censullo, to oversee Harrison operations.
Censullo, who has already met once with the board, said that once the agreement is struck, he anticipates conferring with its members to determine to what extent the long list of services it provides, funded by a $572,000 budget, including $130,507 for health officer’s salary, can be preserved.
Comer, meanwhile, plans to continue teaching career education one night a week at the Hudson County Schools of Technology’s KAS (Knowledge & Advanced Skills) Prep in Harrison.
Comer had originally considered a career in teaching and, after getting her college degree, served as a health educator with the Inter-County Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse at Kearny High School and Queen of Peace High in North Arlington.
But a Belleville colleague convinced her to go for a master’s in public health – which she completed at Hunter College in New York in 1981.
In 1983, the then-Kearny Health Officer Ed Grosvenor hired Comer as assistant. She took the State Health Officers Exam in November of that year and on June 30, 1986, she was selected to replace Arnold Saporito, who was retiring as the Harrison Health Officer.
Under her watch, Harrison residents – young and old – have benefited from a myriad of preventive health programs including: flu and pneumonia vaccinations; immunization against tetanus, diphtheria, HPV and meningitis; prostate, mammography, blood pressure, cardio-vascular and child lead poisoning screenings; rabies clinics; restaurant inspections; WIC (Women, Infants & Children) nutritional counseling; and health education.
In 2003, Comer launched a local Medical Reserve Corps, financed through a federal grant program, which recruited health professionals and nonmedical volunteers and trained them to respond to medical emergencies and assist with local health programs.
In the past two years, in particular, Comer said the volunteers helped administer H1N1 vaccinations for more than 2,000 residents in 2009, and assisted at local fires by helping relocate victims and providing water and refreshments to firefighters. They also participated in a recent trial pandemic flu exercise at the senior center. And, with departmental layoffs in 2010, they supplement health personnel at clinics and screenings.
“Next year, we’ll combine our MRC unit with the county,” Comer said.
During her tenure, public health priorities have shifted, Comer said. “At first, the concern was about people putting garbage out on the wrong day and about people not picking up after their dogs,” she said, “but today, it’s about communicable disease transmission, including sexually transmitted disease.”
“And bedbugs,” Comer added. “It’s become so rampant – now somebody calls us about that every day.”
Harrison has seen an upswing in Hepatitis A and B, Comer said. Among the town’s population of about 14,000, there were 27 cases reported in 2005 but that jumped to 42 in 2006 and, last year, there were 41, she said. Hep A, which is food-borne, is seen increasingly among the South American population while Hep B, blood-borne, has been on the rise among Asians, Comer said.
Local eateries and delis that prepare and serve more than three types of hot foods have been complying with state regulations on certified food handler training. “We have a 90% compliance rate among them,” Comer said.
Comer advises nonprofessionals to educate themselves about health issues as much as they can since there are likely to be fewer public health care resources available in the near future.
Today in New Jersey, for example, there are only between 100 and 200 certified health officers to cover more than 500 municipalities, according to North Bergen’s Censullo.
And, Comer says, “we have fewer people meeting the qualifications for health workers in general – and that’s throughout the nation, not just New Jersey – because fewer people are going into the field. And there are going to be fewer public health programs – we’ve already seen a decline in public health government grants – so the population is going to be more vulnerable.”
Looking ahead to retirement, Comer anticipates spending time with her family and teaching with the hope of “keeping more young people in school.”
“I will miss my colleagues after I leave this office and anticipate I will do something to connect me with the wonderful people I have met in Harrison,” Comer said. “I’ve been impressed by the number of people who’ve stopped by the office to wish me well.”
And, she added, “It has been a pleasure to work with such a supportive Board of Health. I’m grateful to the board for believing in me and providing guidance and support throughout my career.”