By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — Ever adopt a dog or cat? Eaten at a local restaurant? Got your kids vaccinated so they could attend school in Nashville? Had your car smogged? Metro’s Public Health Department is involved in all those things and many more. It is one of the nation’s best.
After running it for a decade, Dr. Bill Paul is leaving. The Board of Health announced Monday Dr. Wendy Long will replace him. Paul will be a hard act to follow because he knows how to fight disease and he knows how to prevent it, too.
An infectious disease expert and an epidemiologist, Paul trained at the Center for Disease
Control in Atlanta. He considers the city his patient and has spearheaded a number of innovative programs to create a culture of health in Nashville. In 2018, the department was named one of the country’s top ten local health agencies by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Paul has a soft touch and a knack for creating partnerships with agencies that normally would never talk to each other. It is his genius. He’s worked with a Frist foundation, NashvilleHealth, hospital CEOs, and his staff works with the Metro police, Metro schools, and a number of non-profits to improve the lives of the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill.
“He’s a great guy. I will miss him and I’m sorry to see him go,” said Marc Overlock, who works at Nashville General Hospital. Overlock was on a task force to prevent early infant deaths and credits Paul for a new community mental health facility in Metro Center that is going to save the police all sorts of time and trouble.
“If you have a mental health issue we now have beds and if you get arrested the police don’t have to lock you up and they can take you to this center,” Overlock said.
Paul is likeable because he is so self-effacing. He has been tireless in making Nashville a healthier place to live and his quiet passion is infectious. He inspires people to get things done. For example, 35,000 shots were given to combat the flu pandemic in 2010.
This year, 7.000 people were inoculated for Hepatitis A. Nashville has had 150 cases. Paul said Louisville, Kentucky has had thousands. Teen births are at a ten-year low, a 70% decrease from 2007 to 2014.
In 2016, Davidson County was recognized by the Tennessee Commissioner of Health, as one of the top five counties to reduce ER visits for children with asthma. Paul lobbied for more school nurses and got them. He spent money on a mobile WIC unit that travels to provide food supplements to mothers and their babies. The five WIC sites also provide dental services.
Public health has eight dental hygienists in Metro schools who have reduced cavities in Metro’s school children by 25 percent. In five years, Metro’s Animal Care & Control department has reduced the number of animals it puts down from eighty-six percent to ten percent.
Infant sleep-related deaths dropped 30 percent in Nashville from 2013-2016. Why? Because the task force Paul created distributed “Pack and Play” cribs to parents who were letting their babies sleep with them in the same bed.
“Every baby should sleep alone on their back in a crib,” Paul told the Tribune. Babies can suffocate if they sleep with grown-ups. It is preventable.
“Bill Paul is a strong leader and very intentional about collaborating with organizations beyond the health department,” said Ted Cornelius, V-P of Health Innovation for YMCA of Middle Tennessee.
Cornelius was chairman of the Healthy Nashville Leadership Council (HNLC) created during the Purcell administration in 2002 which led to the first Nashville Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) in 2014 during the Dean administration.
As Metro’s health director, Paul convened organizations working on various health-related issues to pick priorities and develop a strategic five-year CHIP plan. The 2015-2019 CHIP has three priorities: advance health equity, maximize built and natural environments, and support emotional and mental health.
Although he got them all into the same room, Paul was surprised with what they came up with.
“When the process came up with those three I’m like ‘What? It’s not obesity or smoking?’ but that’s really the wisdom of the process. It’s what we need to be focused on strategically and if we do better on those things maybe would be able to do a better job with obesity and smoking,” said Paul.
About things he can actually control, Paul made water the default drink at Health Department meetings. When you walk into the new Lentz clinic, you face a wide staircase instead of elevators which are off to the right.
And there is a quarter-mile track around the Lentz parking lot so employees can take a walk after their lunch. Exercise is good for you and the Lenz Clinic was designed to promote health. It’s an example of what Paul calls the “environmental piece’ of public health.
“His vision is to talk about health in all policies,” said Freida Outlaw, an expert in psychiatric mental health nursing who has taught health policy at Vanderbilt. She considers Paul a public health rock star so she invited him to lecture in her classes. Outlaw has been a member of Metro’s HNLC since 2012.
Rachel Freeman is the President and CEO of the Sexual Assault Center at 101 French Landing in Metro Center. She said the Sexual Assault Center worked on getting a clinic for ten years and after three years of monthly meetings to improve the city’s response to rape victims, the long-awaited clinic opened its doors in August 2018. Paul convened the parties and led the Sexual Assault Task Force which made that happen.
“He really didn’t have a stake in the game other than that he wanted to see things improve,” Freeman said.
The center now does forensic exams, provides counseling, and has a 24-hour crisis hotline. The number is 1-800-879-1999.
Deputy Director Sanmi Areola put a positive spin on Paul’s departure. “I am happy that he’s happy. He’s okay and the department is okay,” he said.
Paul has spent 26 years in public health, fifteen years in Chicago and eleven in Nashville.
The city has reaped the benefit. Paul said he has one more job in him before he retires but for now he wants to take a break. He’s going skiing in January.