Walla Walla County health official wins national acclaim

Harvey Crowder, Public Health administrator, has won a prize for the flu shot roundup.

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FLU VACCINE HARVEY CROWDER---Walla Walla County Public Health Department's Harvey Crowder with a freshly unboxed adult flu vaccine from the refrigerated storage (background) units at the Fairgrounds Community Building on the morning of the 1st day of mass flu vaccinations (Tuesday). October 20, 2009 Jeff Horner Photo

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HARVEY CROWDER REFLECTS---A practical, get-the-job-done kind of guy, Walla Walla County Health Department head, Harvey Crowder, reflects on the innovative work side that garnered him a big award over his efforts with the mass vaccination clinic. November 4, 2010 Jeff Horner Photo

WALLA WALLA -- People entering public service don't tend to expect public recognition.

Not positive recognition at any rate.

It's often a thankless job, judged by every taxpayer. That is especially true in public health, the agency responsible for alerting the public about disease in every form and a few other nasty facts of life, such as sewage in drinking water and food poisoning from public eateries.

Occasionally, however, the unsung heroes hear a note of praise. And next week, Harvey Crowder gets the whole choir.

The administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department was nominated by his staff for the Milton and Ruth Roemer Prize from the American Public Health Association. Front and center was Crowder's work in developing and implementing the mass flu shot roundup, which just completed its sixth year.

The large-scale vaccination process does triple duty -- getting vaccine into a multitude of arms, practicing for a bioterrorism event and preparing the community for future pandemics, explained Susann Bassham, who signed the nomination package.

The award is given in recognition of "outstanding" creative and innovative local government public health work intended to address health issues of the general or special populations.

Crowder received official notice of the honor in October, he said. He'll receive the Roemer prize at the association's annual meeting in Denver on Tuesday.

Perhaps no one explains why the Walla Walla administrator was chosen better than Lawson Knight, executive director of Blue Mountain Community Foundation.

In his letter supporting Crowder's nomination, Knight asked the prize committee if getting your flu shot can be fun.

"Yes, really. I have witnessed it," he wrote. "My family was but one of many, totaling hundreds of area residents ... Not only did Dr. Crowder and his crew take flu vaccination from their offices to the fairgrounds, they also ventured around the county dosing children at area schools. Many, many more people have been helped by the leadership of Dr. Crowder and his creativity in setting a culture of outreach that serves the public, and doing so beyond a single point of service."

The Roemer award is one of the most meaningful awards in public health, emphasized state Secretary of Health Mary Selecky.

She, too, sent her opinion of Crowder to the nominating committee, Selecky said from her Olympia office earlier this week.

"The Roemer award is about the unsung hero, the person who, in their daily work, is making a difference in their community."

Crowder is an out-of-the-box thinker, Selecky said. Besides acting as an agent of change in his own department, "he's stepped up to tell the story of what its like when we do things at the state level hit Walla Walla. He's not a guy who is about 'no.' He is about 'How can I get this done here?'"

His staff feels the same, said Bassham, health educator for the county. "Before we ever know this award existed, we enthusiastically embraced the flu shot roundup."

No one was experienced with large efforts like the mass vaccination exercise, but her boss's organizational tactics -- based on Forest Service practices for major fires -- quickly made a clear path for employees to follow, she explained.

Not only does the annual clinic significantly shorten the task of getting Walla Walla County immunized, it engages other providers and allows staff to try out different roles, effectively cross-training nearly everyone, Bassham said. "We were very appreciative of that."

As for the unsung hero of the hour, he's still trying to find his voice in all this. "I was really thrilled when the staff submitted the nomination, especially with all the community letters of support," Crowder said Wednesday.

"When I got to look at the other awardees, I was kind of stunned that the national organization would honor the community and me and my staff in such a way."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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