LUBBOCK, Texas – Before Lubbock Health Department Director Katherine Wells took the lead of local public health in 2015, the city once considered closing their public health operations completely.
With only ten employees, the department barely held on to provide immunizations, research and other public health services for the South Plains region. It took a group of people “standing up at the last minute” to save it.
In the six years since Mrs. Wells took charge, the department has grown five-fold and increased its budget exponentially. Starting her tenure in 2015 with a budget of just about $1 million, Wells now runs a Health Department with a budget near $10 million.
“I really wanted to grow public health in Lubbock and… get to a point where the health department would be effective and be able to really make a difference in the community,” Director Wells said.
Yet with growth comes growing pains. Wells says their operation has outgrown their building, and it’s clear from a short tour through their facilities that they are waging a war against COVID with very little ammunition.
Vaccine refrigerators share a room with the copy machine. Nurses house their cramped desks in the same room in which they treat patients. The “pharmacy,” as Mrs. Wells affectionately calls it, consists of pill bottles stuffed into a miniature filing cabinet.
“We don’t fit here anymore,” Wells said. “It doesn’t have the adequate clinical space to provide mass vaccinations or provide any other clincal care. We also have people doubled up in offices, and it’s not a good use of space. So I’ve really been advocating for a new public health building for a couple years now.”
This year, Wells got her wish.
The city and county are investing $11 million into a brand new public health facility, thanks in part to the $116 million in combined federal funds the area is receiving through the American Rescue Plan.
“With the pandemic, and with the opportunity of these ARPA funds, I think we’re able to move forward faster,” Wells said.
Her department is also proposing the creation of a new public health district to centralize services between the city and the county.
The proposal would change the makeup of the Board of Public Health in the city charter. Currently, all nine representatives are appointed by the city council. This combined public health district would feature 6 city-appointees and add 3 representatives appointed by the county commissioner’s court.
According to a city presentation on November 19, the new district would “formalize and strengthen the local public health system, increase services available in the county, [and] improve partnerships with schools.”
“I’m really excited to hopefully be collaborating with the county and creating that county health district where everybody in the county, regardless if you live in the city or one of our smaller municipalities, you will have access to the same level of public health services,” Wells said.
Wells estimates it will be another 12-18 months before the Health Department will move into their new building, and the city and county both have to give final approval to the reimagined public health district. Wells is optimistic, however, that these steps will better serve the public health needs of everyone in Lubbock County for the future.
“I see us as the way to bring everybody together,” she said. “And that’s what I hope, by having this new building and the title of being the health district, will really start bringing that together – for people in Lubbock and the people in our outside communities.”