In the community, Local government

Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe resigns

ONTARIO – During the darkest days of the Covid pandemic, Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, would begin work before dawn, snuggled under the covers of her bed.

She would check her email, sifting through hundreds of messages delivered about the pandemic while she was asleep.

She said she remembers the pandemic as a “big hill.”

“It was a big challenge in front of us and we knew we had to climb it and we got over that hill. But a public health emergency is very difficult,” she said.

Poe, who served more than five years as the county health department director, announced last week she is resigning to take a top job with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

The Malheur County Court accepted Poe’s resignation Wednesday, May 15, which is effective May 24.

Poe, 41, said her new position is a “dream job.” Poe will take the position of deputy director for public health with the Idaho agency.

Before she became the Malheur County Health Department Director, Poe worked at Heart ‘n Home Hospice & Palliative Care LLC and as the Malheur County drug prevention coordinator for Lifeways.

Poe said now is a good time to depart the health department.

“I feel like our team and our department is in a very good place right now. I like feeling that other people will be able to step in and make it better in their own way,” said Poe.

Poe’s tenure as director of the health department was in many ways defined by the Covid pandemic. She took over as director just a year before the pandemic exploded across the nation and the county.

Poe said in some ways, the response to the pandemic made the job of public health easier.

“It was a simpler time because it took all of our focus,” she said.

The pandemic also changed the health department.

Poe said the crisis allowed her to restructure the department, obtain more funding and coach and promote health department staff.

“That provided a lot of workforce development. That is what I am most proud of. If I had not done those things, Covid would have come and gone and we would have not made the progress we needed to make,” said Poe.

She said during the pandemic she felt responsible for the health and welfare of the community.

“I felt I had a steep learning curve and I needed to, at the least, lead the way,” she said.

She said for more than a year and a half during the pandemic her day started in her bed as she read emails.

She realized five years ago after taking the county post that she loved public health.

“I knew I really wanted to give back to the community,” she said.

A job that complimented her own values was also important, she said.

“I wanted to make things better for other people and their families. When I applied for the job I didn’t understand the scope of how meaningful the work is,” said Poe.

Poe said she is proud of ability to face challenges.

“I never denied a problem that was handed to me,” said Poe.

She said she concentrated on key goals that were not visible to the public.

“I really focused on our infrastructure, programs and sustainability. That’s definitely less shiny, but it is really about the foundation. We have things like a strategic plan for the first time. We have a leadership team of seasoned people who work closely together,” said Poe. For Poe, creating coalitions with other agencies in the community was another success.

“I really saw the directors role, the core of the work, was about partnerships and relationships,” said Poe.

Poe said county residents should know public health “affects every single person.”

“What we do here is not just our direct services, which are really important, but it is also about the systems and the structures that mean our kids have the opportunity for a healthy life,” she said.

She said she will miss her co-workers.

“This has been an incredible job. We really have an incredible group of people working at the health department, people who are really grounded in their values of compassion and integrity,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

Poe ready for new role as Malheur County Health Department director

Coalition seeks solutions, strategies to address local overdose dilemma

BREAKING: Malheur County reports first case of COVID-19

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