As the pinnacle of operations for the U.S. Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention in Mozambique, Dr. Alfredo Vergara spent years preventing to comprise HIV and the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
He additionally labored to fight malaria and enhance public well being surveillance. And he responded to COVID-19 in a rustic the place the pandemic appeared very totally different than in america, with a youthful inhabitants and extra time spent open air serving to to mitigate circumstances.
It may appear odd to go from that job to turning into the director of public well being in a small New England metropolis 1000’s of miles away, however for Vergara it made sense.
“I needed to be on the entrance traces,” he mentioned, including that he likes being in locations the place he can see how his work impacts the group.
Vergara, who took over as Portland’s public well being director in August, hopes to have an effect by placing a dent in among the metropolis’s longstanding issues – homelessness, substance use and habit – in addition to enhancing entry for susceptible populations, together with new Mainers. He replaces Bob Fowler, who left in November 2021, and can earn a wage of $106,153.
Vergara additionally desires to increase clinic hours and enhance coordination with different suppliers and group organizations. And he hopes to organize the town for the potential of future pandemics or illness outbreaks. “I wish to make effort to arrange a group and practice them in case one thing else comes alongside,” mentioned Vergara, 60.
He mentioned a lot of Portland’s challenges in public well being are just like what the remainder of the nation faces. The massive one being a scarcity of funding.
There might not be a simple repair, Vergara mentioned, however he hopes that as a frontrunner he can discover good employees, then entice them to remain long-term with the proper coaching and alternatives for upward mobility.
“Quite a lot of public well being is about context,” Vergara mentioned. “Should you don’t know the context and in the event you don’t be taught it and stick with it and construct relationships with the group, it’s tougher.”
‘INTEGRATE INTO THE COMMUNITY’
When he got here throughout the Portland job posting, utilized and began speaking to folks right here, Vergara mentioned it appeared like the proper match. “We hope to remain right here the remainder of our lives and combine into the group,” mentioned Vergara, who moved together with his spouse, Sarah Sheldon, who was employed by the town’s public well being division as its immunization coordinator.
A part of Portland’s draw was its proximity to Boston, the place Sheldon has household. Vergara mentioned they needed to be shut by, however in a smaller group.
Earlier than accepting the job, he had solely been to Portland as soon as, as a part of a 2017 journey to Acadia Nationwide Park. Vergara was pleasantly shocked at how pleasant folks had been as he and his spouse walked across the metropolis with their two youngsters, whom Vergara and his spouse adopted from Mozambique.
Each youngsters are grown and away at school now, however Vergara mentioned additionally they plan to spend time in Portland.
“That’s additionally one of many issues that attracted us,” Vergara mentioned. “We had been pondering we wish to reside in a spot the place the children don’t really feel utterly misplaced, and Portland does have vital variety, in order that makes it simpler for them.”
He and his spouse have been posting on Nextdoor, introducing themselves to the group as they’ve settled into an residence – although they’ve additionally been searching for a home – and have taken in a teenage asylum seeker to reside with them.
Vergara mentioned it was his spouse who came upon in regards to the lady’s want. They had been comfortable to assist, he mentioned, downplaying their generosity. “It’s actually not that a lot of a giant deal,” Vergara mentioned, although he joked that he frightened their youngsters may really feel displaced. “We talked about it with them, although, and they’re tremendous,” Vergara mentioned.
As public well being director, Vergara heads considered one of 4 divisions throughout the Division of Well being and Human Providers – the town’s largest division.
Throughout the public well being division there are 5 scientific packages – the immunization program, maternal and youngster well being, a sexually transmitted illness clinic, the Portland free clinic and the syringe alternate program. The division additionally oversees different preventive packages and initiatives together with tobacco use prevention, wholesome consuming and lively dwelling, substance use prevention, and lead poisoning prevention.
“It’s a giant scope of a job and we had a very nice group of candidates, however to have anyone with international well being expertise, a Ph.D. in epidemiology and the kind of perspective he brings to us, it’s distinctive,” mentioned Tina Pettingill, the deputy director of well being and human companies.
There’s a variety of work to be performed. Final 12 months, DHHS’ public well being and social companies divisions moved into a brand new area at 39 Forest Ave., and Pettingill mentioned it’s been an ongoing effort to verify companies and individuals are working collectively and that the division is capitalizing on the shared area.
She mentioned the town additionally has been challenged by an inflow of immigrants and asylum seekers who include distinctive well being challenges. They usually don’t converse English or know easy methods to navigate American well being programs.
“Although we’re somewhat metropolis we’ve got international and large well being challenges,” Pettingill mentioned.
Vergara grew up in Venezuela and got here to the U.S. on a scholarship when he was 18 to check biomedical engineering on the College of Iowa. He returned to Venezuela, however couldn’t discover a job and got here again to Iowa to get his grasp’s diploma after which a doctorate in epidemiology from the College of Iowa’s Division of Preventive Medication.
He started working for the CDC in 1993, and knew he finally needed to work abroad. In 2000, the company was seeking to open an workplace in Mozambique. Vergara, who had performed volunteer work in Africa and was intrigued by the job, utilized and acquired it.
He was there for six years earlier than returning to the U.S. and taking a job educating public well being at Vanderbilt College. He additionally labored to develop the Vanderbilt Institute for International Well being, a chance that allowed him to journey to Central America, South America and Africa for analysis and collaboration.
Vergara and his spouse needed their youngsters to know the place they got here from, so finally he began searching for methods to return to Mozambique. In 2013, he took a job as a director for well being programs on the nation’s U.S. CDC workplace, and in 2016 he was named nation director for a second time.
A lot of Vergara’s work in Mozambique was targeted on combatting HIV and the AIDS epidemic. Peter Younger, the affiliate director for science for the CDC in Mozambique, labored with Vergara throughout his time there and mentioned Vergara was recognized for his give attention to enhancing well being programs reasonably than searching for remoted options, like one-time funding for an HIV remedy program.
“It’s extra about attempting to have a look at how issues are built-in throughout programs and the way can we reply to challenges sooner or later,” Younger mentioned. “That’s one of many issues he’s performed and that he’s recognized for doing.”
Younger mentioned he frightened somewhat in regards to the transition when he came upon Vergara could be transferring to Maine, particularly when he contemplated how a lot colder it might be. However he mentioned his former colleague has at all times been adaptable.
“I believe he’ll do tremendous in his new function,” Younger mentioned.