Once homeless, doctor now to lead Ohio Health Department

Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday named Dr. Amy Acton as his pick to run the Ohio Department of Health — his last cabinet nomination — and he promised to elevate the profile of the 1,100-employee agency.

Acton is a Youngstown native who once lived in a tent in the middle of winter when her family was homeless. Acton earned her medical degree from Northeastern Ohio University, completed internship and residencies and earned a master’s degree in public health.

At a press conference Tuesday, DeWine said he wants Acton to use the bully pulpit to raise awareness about key public health issues facing Ohio.

“It took a while to find the right person. We have found the right person,” he said.

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“I really approach in a very holistic way, meaning that the food we eat is our health, where we live and the zip code we’re born into is our health, all the things that surround us are creating the conditions in which we can flourish in our lives,” Acton said.

She named infant mortality and youth homelessness as top issues she would like to address.

Ohio still has an alarming number of babies who die before their first birthday, particularly black babies.

The number of Ohio infants who died before their first birthday declined to 982 in 2017 from 1,024 in 2016. At the same time, the disparity in birth outcomes continued in 2017, with black infants dying at three times the rate as white infants. Acton said she’ll investigate low-cost programs that have proven to reduce infant mortality in other communities and countries.

In Ohio, there were 4,854 unintentional drug deaths in 2017, up from 411 in 2000. That dramatic growth has been fueled by the opioid crisis. Ohio Department of Health has been combating the issue with supporting community efforts and expanded access to overdose reversing drugs, expanding access to drug disposal options and public awareness campaigns.

The department is traditionally headed by a physician but hasn’t had a doctor as director since February 2014. “I wanted someone with a public health and I wanted someone who was a physician or a nurse,” DeWine said.

ODH enforces regulations on abortion clinics, inspects nursing homes, tracks health data, monitors lead poisoning and more. It also is in charge of preventing, monitoring and responding to infectious disease outbreaks.

Ohio is in the midst of a statewide hepatitis A outbreak, with 1,819 confirmed cases from a 1-year-old to an 84-year-old. The viral liver disease has left seven people dead and 1,140 hospitalized.

In January, the state’s epidemiologist Sietske de Fijter said counties that were initially hit hard and started prevention efforts have seen cases slowing though in areas that weren’t hit as hard initially and didn’t start prevention efforts as early, the rate of new cases is still on the rise.

Acton sidestepped a question about her personal view on abortion. “I don’t have a stance on abortion. I definitely am here to follow the law of the state of Ohio,” she said.

Acton most recently served as a grants manager at the Columbus Foundation and worked for seven years as an assistant professor at Ohio State University College of Public Health.

Acton lives in Bexley with her husband, who is a middle school teacher and high school cross country coach. They have six children.

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Staff writer Kaitlin Schroeder contributed to this report.

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