HEALTH OFFICIAL LEAVING TO TAKE ON JOB SAFETY ; IN WYOMING; ; State epidemiologist exiting ; New Mexico agency after 28 years.Byline: Phaedra Haywood
New Mexico state epidemiologist C. Mack Sewell has been tapped by the state of Wyoming to help that state address its high rate of occupational fatalities.
Wyoming had the second highest rate of fatal workplace accidents in the country in 2010 and has had the highest or second highest rate in the country nine out of the past 10 years, according to an Associated Press story.
Sewell has been hired to be the occupational
epidemiologist with the Department of Workforce Solutions in Cheyenne. He'll try to pinpoint the causes of the high workplace injury and fatality rates, and advise the state on policies that could address the problem.
Sewell said most people think an epidemiologist's work has something to do with skin, as in dermatology. It doesn't, though in some cases, it can.
An epidemiologist studies the causes, distribution and controls of diseases and other public health problems in populations. When an outbreak of a suspicious disease or a disease states are required to track occurs, epidemiologists try to pinpoint the source of the contamination. They also monitor trends and patterns in diseases or other behavior-related health issues (smoking, for example).
Epidemiologists such as Sewell -- who heads the state's epidemiology response division -- also help develop policy to address specific health issues.
For example, in Wyoming, he may look at how the state's lack of a primary seat belt law (police can't pull motorists over on that basis alone) contributes to the fatality rates of commuters.
In the course of his 28 years at the New Mexico Department of Health, Sewell has been involved in numerous high-profile cases.
In 1989, he was part of a team of people who identified contaminated L-tryptophan as the source of an outbreak of eosinophilia eosinophilia /eo·sin·o·phil·ia/ (e?o-sin?o-fil´e-ah) abnormally increased eosinophils in the blood.
An increase in the number of eosinophils in the blood. myalgia myalgia /my·al·gia/ (mi-al´jah) muscular pain.myal´gic
epidemic myalgia see under pleurodynia.
n. syndrome -- an incurable and sometimes fatal flulike neurological condition.
In 1993, he was one of a group of specialists who worked "tirelessly for weeks" to find out what had killed a young Native American man and woman in the Gallup area.
The disease appeared to "punch holes at the cellular level," he said, causing its victims' lungs to fill up with fluid.
As more reports of this type of death started to come in, the research team, which included officials from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), agency of the U.S. Public Health Service since 1973, with headquarters in Atlanta; it was established in 1946 as the Communicable Disease Center. , eventually decided to issue a "Dear Doctor" letter asking physicians in the state to be on the lookout for in search of; looking for.
See also: Lookout the condition.
That letter was leaked to the press, Sewell said, "and a firestorm ensued. Within a few days we had
all the major networks -- CNN CNN
or Cable News Network
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are. "I was on the [NBC NBC
in full National Broadcasting Co.
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"Some people look back fondly on that, but from a personal level it was one of the most stressful parts of my career. People were dying. We didn't have an answer. There was intense media pressure. There was political pressure. Myself and my deputy, Dr. Ron Vorhees, were working 90- and 100-hour weeks."
Within 20 days, the agencies, working in tandem, were able to identify the disease as a new form of hantavirus, which at the time was seen primarily in Korea.
Sewell also testified before the Legislature years ago in favor of changing the blood alcohol level that constitutes legal drunkenness from 1.0 to .08. "The science is very clear," Sewell said. "A .08 is impaired."
Sewell also led his division through the H1N1
pandemic pandemic /pan·dem·ic/ (pan-dem´ik)
1. a widespread epidemic of a disease.
2. widely epidemic.
Epidemic over a wide geographic area.
n. of 2009, an experience that he said "cured" him of his life-long interest in pandemic influenza.
"[Flu] is interesting because it mutates rapidly and changes constantly," he said. "We thought the next pandemic would come out of Southeast Asia and be extremely deadly." As it turned out, the strain originated in Mexico and was fairly mild.
"I call it our learner pandemic," Sewell said. "It really taught us about the difficulties of trying to manufacture vaccine and get it out to the public."
Sewell worked for many governors and health
secretaries in his nearly three decades at the department. He was appointed during Toney Anaya's administration, and worked under Alex Valdez -- now chief operating officer Chief Operating Officer (COO)
The officer of a firm responsible for day-to-day management, usually the president or an executive vice-president. of Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center -- when Valdez was secretary of health.
Current Secretary Catherine Torres has been unpopular enough with some employees that they have created a blog that features topic headings with titles such as "Cabinet Secretary Dr. Catherine Torres is a Liar."
Two top level administrators -- Deputy Secretary Wally Vette and Chief Medical Officer Erin Bouquin -- recently resigned from the department.
But Sewell said his leaving has nothing to do with Torres. Rather, he said, he is intrigued by the opportunity to help Wyoming address its problems and wants to be closer to family who live in Colorado.
Sewell, who earns $110,800 per year, supervises about 175 people. His last day at the department is June 15.
His replacement has not yet been named.
Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068