After almost three months on the job as Door County’s Public Health officer, Eric Krawczyk has begun reaching out to community organizations and setting goals for how he wants Door County to approach improving community health.

Krawczyk took over Aug. 8 after previous Public Health officer Susan Powers retired in June. (Disclosure: Powers has become a Knock donor since her retirement.) Powers led Door County Public Health’s pandemic-related measures over the first two years of the pandemic and was among the faces of the county’s response to Covid-19.

In an interview this week, Krawczyk said he thinks Covid likely will continue to be a concern and might be more or less severe in a given year, similar to the flu. He also outlined Public Health’s work to return to providing traditional public health services, an effort that had begun before he started.

Krawczyk said his goals include increasing the visibility of Public Health to residents and its engagement with the community, and setting and tracking concrete targets for improving county-wide health.

“My main point is, how do we know over the next five years that we’re getting healthier, to actually have some measurable goals?” Krawczyk said. “We want to have smaller groups working together on these focus areas of substance abuse, mental health and healthy lifestyle.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Knock: Could you tell people a little about your background?

Eric Krawczyk: Sure. I am originally from Milwaukee – I was born and raised there. College-wise, I did my undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. I started out as a business major and took a public health 101 class as a prerequisite. It seemed really simple to me and connected with me. So I switched my major into community health education and graduated with that degree.

Then I worked at an insurance company called CUNA Mutual Insurance in Madison for about a year and a half. I enjoyed that, but I knew I wasn’t going to be doing that long-term. So I accepted a job in Oneida, right outside of Green Bay, for the Oneida Nation, one of the 11 tribes in the state of Wisconsin. I started off as a fitness center director for about a year. And then I was asked to become a health promotion supervisor a year later.

Then a year later, I became the youngest public health officer in the state, at age 27, for the Oneida Nation. I stayed in that position for 27 years. We had five employees (when I started), and when I left, we had 42. It was just a really great experience for me. We obtained public health accreditation – we were the second tribe in the United States that achieved that accreditation status.

In June 2020, I got a call from the state asking for help in the Covid response. So I left the tribe after 30 years and worked helping health departments across the state develop their testing plans and some of their vaccine programs. I have a really good understanding of county public health departments, and being in the profession for so long, I knew a lot of the health officers and a lot of the departments and how they were structured.

I loved doing that, even though it was working from home. (But) I really missed the relationships. After about two and a half years with the state, I saw that the Door County Public Health officer position was open and wanted to get back to helping counties and staffs develop. I started here Aug. 8. It’s been very challenging but very rewarding at the same time. I did go back and get my Master’s in Public Health Administration (during) my time with the tribe, so that was really beneficial.

You mentioned working with the state on Covid response. Where do you see things standing now with Covid-19? And what’s your approach, or what do you see the county’s approach to that being going forward, especially with the winter coming up?

I think the state, even the federal government, and (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)) have learned a lot. And all three of those will confess or admit that we just weren’t really prepared for what occurred with Covid. Your best education sometimes is failure. I don’t think we really failed. I just think we were overwhelmed with the four S’s of staff, supplies, space and systems.

I think we will always be in some kind of pandemic – different levels of a pandemic. But I think public health departments now have done a really good job of educating communities that this is something that’s just going to be with us. And we just have to work with what’s happening with Covid. Kind of like the flu vaccine, we get a flu shot every year. Some years, it’s very severe. Some years, it’s not so severe. And I think Covid is going to be the same way, as long as we continue to take self responsibility and try to follow some of the guidelines that are put out by public health departments, by CDC and by the state Division of Public Health.

I think we’ll be okay. But I still think that there will be surges. There’ll be times when we might have to mask in certain areas. I think the biggest deficiency is just the consistency. Every jurisdiction, every state, every county, has different restrictions, or we’re all practicing in different ways. The school systems were all different. If we can find a way to work together or find some uniformity, I think that will be much better in supporting each other (in) how we deal with Covid and how we deal with vaccines and masking and all those very delicate issues.

I think for probably a lot of people in the last couple of years, when they hear about Public Health, it’s been associated a lot with Covid response. But Public Health does a lot of other things and has a lot of other responsibilities. How do you see Public Health continuing to return to other services this year, as we’ve transitioned to a different phase of Covid?

Up until August, I was still working that position with the state and helping health departments and clinics and hospitals across the state with some of the Covid response. So what I was hearing toward the end was how public health departments are really struggling with getting back to offering core public health services. Staffs across the state are really burned out. I can say the same thing here in Door County. When I first arrived here, (our staff) were tired – not so much physically, but emotionally.

Public health departments across the state have really been scrutinized, especially from a leadership standpoint. A lot of public health officers have retired, have moved on. And so (departments are) struggling to get back to some of the prevention programs, some of the community programs. A little simple example is car safety seats, or bicycle safety, or water testing, lead abatement, community clinics. It’s been really difficult for those health departments to get in that mentality because they’ve been in such a reactive mode because of Covid, more so than trying to be in a preventive mode.

Here in Door County, one of our goals is to be more visible within Door County for everyone to realize what Public Health really does, more so than just give vaccine shots and immunizations.

Public health is everywhere. It’s everything from having a safe place to sleep to having clean water and flouride in your toothpaste to car child safety seats and seatbelts. It affects every part of our lives. I think sometimes people don’t really appreciate that until something like Covid hits, and then they watch the national news and they see these health workers working 18 hours a day trying to provide services for those that need it.

I was just going to ask you about that. I know a lot of your work since you started has centered around community engagement. What is your vision there? How do you hope to engage with residents and shape the role of Public Health in the community?

I was at a (county) Health and Human Services Board meeting last Monday, and I talked about the visibility aspect of just engaging people. We were doing some things with United Way. Next week, we’re at the YMCA for a healthy living fair. (We’re also working with) Boys and Girls Club. I need to reach out to some of the small businesses and ask them what they need from us and what we can do to help them be successful in their businesses. I think that’s a different approach than (saying) what we need from you. That’s kind of where you start to build that trust and that relationship.

What we’ve tried to do here is develop some educational tools and different presentations, where we can come to some of these community events. Not just in Sturgeon Bay, but up on the Island and in Sister Bay, and some of the other areas that have maybe not had a chance to see what Public Health services really are about.

It’s hard sometimes to do that with a smaller staff, but I just tell people we need to think big and start small, and just be visible. What we’re doing is to identify who needs our services and then assisting then in the best way possible. I think that’s really, really important, and it’s just that involvement in showing them that we care. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I hope to extend on that visibility of what Covid created.

Public Health has been working on a community health assessment. What do you see as some of the bigger like long-term health issues or health challenges for Door County?

Well, I think the biggest one is mental health, mental health and substance abuse, and then the other priority area we have is healthy lifestyle. We’ve put a couple of different areas in that last category. With the median age in Door County, you’re getting toward the older population, and tourism is an issue as well in housing.

Five or 10 years ago, access to dental care was the number one public health issue across the state for a long time, and I think a lot of communities have evolved and done some things with that. I know Door County has a dental clinic here that accepts (BadgerCare) and those that are uninsured, which is amazing. I tell people that across the state that they have those types of services here. Tooth decay and other dental hygiene type of things lead to other high risk diseases.

We hope to have that assessment completed by the end of this year. We’re required by state statute to do one every five years. I think the one that we do next will be a lot more comprehensive with a lot more diversity, a lot more partners, taking into account health equity, and just really looking at what is Door County all about?

My main point is, how do we know over the next five years that we’re getting healthier, to actually have some measurable goals? We want to have smaller groups working together on these focus areas of substance abuse, mental health and healthy lifestyle, and the thing that we have going for us is these coalitions are already established. But I think sometimes, a lot of individuals or a lot of groups tend to work in silos. We have a leadership team that is going to be meeting quarterly, bringing each one of these coalitions to the table and saying what have you accomplished over the last three or four months, and where do you think you’ll be in five years with this goal? Will we meet this?

We need to be able to measure the overall health (of the community). And sometimes that’s hard to do because you can say that’s very subjective. But there are ways that we can tangibly measure how Door County is becoming either healthier or unhealthier.

That’s one of my focuses with not so much the community health assessment – they call it a CHA – but we also hope to have a community health improvement plan – it’s called a CHIP. We hope to have that in place as well by the end of this year. So we have something in hand that just doesn’t sit on the shelf, that is kind of a working, in-progress type document, or a plan to address the overall health of Door County to make sure that we’re striving to make it a healthier place for everyone, of every group, every nationality, not just what people perceive Door County to be.

Is there anything else you want to add or something else we should know about Public Health?

I’ve worked a lot in public health with different associations and a lot of different leadership initiatives. And the one thing that I’ve noticed in this county – and I’ve said this a million times already in 10 weeks – is how kind people are here. It’s where their hearts are. People in general are just amazingly kind and giving and welcoming. Normally, it takes a while to get to know people and to trust people. But from day one here, it’s been an amazing experience (with) people just reaching out (and saying), “What do you need?” and they’re authentic about it. It is not a facade. It’s been a really good two and a half months already, from the standpoint of just really feeling welcomed by the community here.