Before Andrea Walker joined the Frederick County Health Department, she had never heard the term “public health” — a research-driven approach to reducing major health problems.
Now, she’s a member of an inaugural class of public health fellows — part of a new initiative by Johns Hopkins University.
The Bloomberg American Health Initiative — part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — was launched in September 2016, said Josh Sharfstein, the new director of the program. But even before the grant for the initiative was secured, leaders rolled out a new fellowship program aimed at fostering health workers in five key areas: violence, environmental challenges, addiction and overdose, obesity and the food system, and risks to adolescent health.
“These are all major reasons why health is declining in parts of the United States,” Sharfstein said. “From 1980 to 2014, there are counties in the United States where life expectancy has fallen, which is really incredible. We picked areas that have a couple different characteristics, one of which is we think they’re very fundamental to the health challenges that the country is facing.”
As part of her fellowship, Walker — the director of Behavioral Health Services for Frederick County — was awarded a full scholarship to pursue a master’s of public health at Hopkins with an emphasis in addiction and overdose, her current focus as director.
She said she wants to use the opportunity to marry her background in counseling with data-driven approaches that focus on addiction, overdose and mental health throughout the county.
“There are so many things that I want to do, so I’m going to have to really be focused,” Walker said. “My big passion that I’ve been working on for the last six and a half years is the intersection of overdose deaths and suicide. And I’ve been tracking all of the deaths by suicide in Frederick County, working with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to review what’s going on and how can we prevent and reduce our suicide rate in Frederick.”
A key part of accomplishing that goal is learning more about crucial public health skills such as data analysis. Though it sounds dry, the ability to look at a set of numbers and discern larger health trends is crucial for researchers who want to find new ways of solving problems in the community, Sharfstein said.
“For example, in Baltimore we looked intensely at the data around infant mortality and we found that a major preventable cause of infant mortality was sleep-related deaths,” he said. “It led to a huge campaign in the city that has brought infant mortality way down.”
In Frederick County, Walker said she’s noticed a high percentage of people whose issues with substance abuse were co-occurrent with other disorders, including depression and anxiety. By combining her knowledge of that phenomenon with more training on public health, she hopes to organize more outreach and programming that focus specifically on awareness and prevention of manageable mental health disorders.
Another innovative option is launching a needle exchange program in Frederick County, which could be used to connect substance users with mental health treatment programs. Walker is currently studying the feasibility of a needle exchange program thanks to a $23,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Walker also hopes to collaborate with staff members on expanding peer support programs in Frederick County. Peer recovery specialists currently work in several local agencies, including Drug Court and the Frederick County Adult Detention Center, but Walker would also like to see them active with the homeless population and the Division of Fire and Rescue Services.
“They’re the first responders on the scene of an overdose,” Walker said, referring to fire and rescue units. “So, perhaps there’s more that we could do to connect with these [addicted] individuals and get them into treatment.”
Sharfstein said that Hopkins will also work with the Frederick County Health Department to help further these goals, both by extending the fellowship and possibly supplying grant opportunities later on. The department also had to send its own application on Walker’s behalf, recommending her for the opportunity.
“She was clearly so concerned about what’s happening in Frederick County and so devoted to thinking about what can be done to make a difference for a community she’s been a part of,” Sharfstein said. “That was probably the first thing that jumped out at us when we saw the application.”