Finding root cause to ailments key to healthy life, Middletown’s new health director says

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MIDDLETOWN — After taking a course on public health, Middletown Community Health Educator Daisy Hernandez realized that such education has traditionally centered on treatment rather than prevention.

That set her on a path in a field that centers on people’s well-being. Hernandez, who came aboard last week, was most interested in getting to the root of symptoms.

“I was fascinated by the focus of promoting healthy lifestyles, and protecting health and preventing illness and disease before it even happens through health education, good nutrition, good sleep, and promoting getting the recommended vaccinations,” she said.

Most recently, she was program manager of the Healthcare Heroes Against Impaired Driving Program at Hartford Hospital, for eight years, overseeing the “Not One More” statewide impaired driving prevention campaign funded by the state Department of Transportation.

Hernandez was previously a three-year health educator/emergency preparedness and medical reserve corps volunteer coordinator at the East Shore District Health Department in Branford.

After working for smaller, local health departments, Hernandez applied for the Middletown position in hopes of helping a more diverse population, she said.

“During the pandemic, Middletown was very proactive, and had done a lot of great efforts in combating COVID-19,” she said.

Throughout the pandemic, Middletown has been a leader in COVID education, outreach and vaccine availability, officials have said.

“It was really on my radar,” Hernandez added.

The city has also worked hard to provide free services when possible, educating populations most at risk and others with a distrust of the medical field.

In the past, Hernandez partnered with faith-based organizations to help the effort, something Middletown has done as well with the Ministerial Health Fellowship and at Cross Street AME Zion Church.

“They are seen as trusted members of the community that may not always have a voice, so reaching out to community-based faith leaders to understand what are the needs — the worries — of the people they represent,” is important, she said.

This approach allows educators to focus on strategies to effectively target these demographics and present facts at each person’s “health literacy” level, as well as talks and visual elements, she added.

Hernandez, who became a certified health education specialist in 2019, has a bachelor of science degree in public health from Southern Connecticut State University, and is in her last semester as a graduate student there, on track to earn her master’s in public health this month.

Acting Health Director Kevin Elak is excited that Hernandez has joined the team. “She has vast experience with public health education as well as emergency preparedness and coordinating medical reserve corps units,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, Hernandez mostly worked on programs on health topics, such as influenza, Lyme disease prevention, heart disease and other topics.

“It has shown me to be more aware of the different trends and disease surveillance, which is really important,” she said, as well as the importance of being up-to-date on the latest COVID data, for example.

Being able to effectively and clearly communicate health information to the community is vital to the work of such educators.

Early in the pandemic, Hernandez said she realized she needed to be more involved in weekly meetings with emergency management teams made up of fire, police, government officials and representatives of the state Department of Public Health as well as her peers.

Those in the field aim to disseminate consistent messaging as well as counter misinformation about COVID and related topics. “We do our best to always put out accurate information and dispel any myths,” she explained.

Hernandez will be working with the community to understand the specific needs of Middletown, Elak said. “Once we have a better understanding of the public health issues that are impacting our community, we will be able to focus on interventions, outreach and education to meet the needs of the community.”

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