WELLSBURG - As she opened a public meeting Friday, Karen McClain, administrator of the Brooke County Health Department, noted the county ranked lowest among West Virginia's 55 counties for physical environments conducive to good health.
McClain said the rating was influenced by some things her department can't control but that doesn't mean she and other county officials aren't working to improve health conditions for the county's residents.
McClain and her staff gathered at the Serbian American Cultural Center to ask representatives of various agencies and businesses and the community at large about health issues of concern to them.
INPUT SOUGHT — Karen McClain, center, administrator of the Brooke County Health Department; discussed efforts by the department to determine the county’s future health needs at a meeting Friday at the Serbian American Cultural Center. To McClain’s right are Mike Bolen and Britney Hervey Farris, sanitarians for the health department, who also were on hand to accept public input. - Warren Scott
She said the comments and those offered at another meeting in Wellsburg Aug. 23 will be used to update its public health strategic plan.
Development of the plan is being funded by a $7,000 grant from the state Bureau of Public Health. McClain also plans to solicit comment through a short survey to be sent by mail and e-mail in the spring.
She explained to attendees about the factors that led Brooke County to receive the low rating in a 2010 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin.
They included a county's dilapidated structures, brownfields, infrastructure, pollution levels and number of fast food restaurants and bars. McClain said the number of fast food restaurants and bars was considered high in relation to the county's population.
McClain noted charges that the county has high pollution aren't new, as a 2009 USA Today article about schools in high-pollution areas cited Follansbee Middle School.
She said rankings in other categories were more favorable for Brooke County. For example, it ranked 11th for the overall health of its residents and 31st for overal health factors.
McClain said she was surprised that recreational facilities were a factor in the low ranking. Mike Bolen, a sanitarian with the health department, agreed, noting residents have access to the Brooke High School Wellness Center, Brooke Hills Park, Brooke County Pioneer Trail and many local parks and playgrounds.
Beech Bottom Mayor George Lewis said he's learned through video cameras posted along the trail that it is used by many.
"It's unbelieveable the number of people who use that trail," he said.
Resident Rose Riccelli of Colliers asked when the athletic track at the high school may be used.
Carol Cipoletti, the school nurse, said the track is open to the public after school only to maintain security for students during the school day.
Some attendees noted it can be difficult to use the track during certain seasons when athletic practices or events are being held.
John Balzano, a Weirton resident, said it can be difficult to fit exercise into one's schedule - even for seniors, who have become involved more in caring for their grandchildren-but everyone must make a commitment to it.
Cipoletti said many parents are turning to fast food because it is faster, cheaper and more convenient than preparing meals themselves.
She said more fast food restaurants are offering healthier menu items, but many customers aren't choosing them.
Melissa Reed of the Brooke-Hancock Family Resource Network said healthier food often is more expensive. But she suggested the health department and others could help by offering classes to teach residents to quickly and economically prepare their own meals.
Bolen said that's something the health department could pursue, possibly with the help of local PTAs.
A number of attendees raised concerns about illegal drug use in the county and deaths resulting from accidental overdoses.
They noted attempts have been made to address it in a variety of ways. They have included suspending students for possession of illegal drugs at school, offering college scholarships who have been determined drug-free through random drug tests and educating youth about the dangers of drug abuse at an early age.
Sandy Rogers, a nurse with the health department, noted a locked drop-off bin has been established at the county courthouse for the deposit of old or unused prescription drugs in an effort to keep them out of the hands of those who would abuse them.
Some blamed the area's economic difficulties for the drug problem, noting drug use does little to change users' employment opportunities when they are unable to pass drug tests required by many employers.
McClain said an issue the health department may face in the future is the environmental impact of the natural gas industry.
She and others noted the Robert Wood Johnson-University of Wisconsin study was conducted before natural gas drilling began, bringing pollution from thousands of trucks to the county.