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Grand Forks Public Health employee recognized for years of public health work

Theresa Knox earned the North Dakota Public Health Association's Outstanding Service Award on June 3. Grand Forks' health department as a whole was also recognized with the association's Health Team of the Year award.

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Theresa Knox, Grand Forks Public Health's nursing and nutrition manager. Submitted photo.

A longtime Grand Forks Public Health worker and the department as a whole were honored earlier this month by a statewide public health guild.

The North Dakota Public Health Association on Thursday, June 3, gave Theresa Knox, the local health department’s nursing and nutrition manager, the association’s Outstanding Service Award. The city and county’s joint health department was also named the Health Team of the Year.

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The service award Knox earned is akin to one for lifetime achievement. It recognizes the breadth of a public health worker’s career, according to Sarah Weninger, who co-chairs the association’s awards committee. Knox, who, minus a four-year stint at Valley Health in the early 2000s, has worked at Grand Forks Public Health since 1994, “embodies the principles of public health,” Debbie Swanson, the health department’s director, wrote in a letter nominating Knox for the award. Swanson put forth a laundry list of Knox’s accomplishments: mentoring new and inexperienced colleagues, serving on a lengthy list of health-minded boards and governing councils in and around Grand Forks, and her push to get the health department nationally accredited while grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Her work is grounded in an ethic of caring. Her commitment to social justice and health equity have been central to her work in women’s health, maternal and child health (MCH) and tobacco prevention prior to her leadership role,” Swanson wrote. “Theresa demonstrates the necessary moral courage to address challenging and controversial issues such as tobacco prevention laws and prevention of disease during a pandemic.”

Knox, who is 65 but told the Herald she has no immediate plans to retire, said she was surprised to win the award. That’s partly because she, like the rest of the health department’s staff, have been in a dead sprint during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because other workers in her field share her passion and work ethic and could have earned the award themselves.

“There are a lot of overachievers,” Knox said.

In hospitals and clinics, a doctor or nurse might see results in a matter of days or weeks, Knox, who was the health department's operation chief during the pandemic and planned the large-scale vaccination drives at the Alerus Center, said. But, in public health, results can take years.

“Whether or not you've made a change in your community, it's kind of hard to see because you're always working towards those long-term goals,” Knox said. The award, in her estimation, means she succeeded in some of those longer-term efforts, such as a push for smoke-free workplace ordinances. “It sounds like I made a difference. What more could you ask?”

The award for an outstanding “health team” looks at a year’s worth of accomplishments, rather than a career’s worth. Grand Forks’ health department deserved it, Swanson said in a separate nomination letter, because of the work staffers there had done during the coronavirus pandemic . She cited the department’s large-scale testing and contact tracing programs, efforts to help homeless people quarantine in Grand Forks-area hotels, and the Grand Forks Health Officer’s Dashboard , which aimed to be a tool for residents and institutions to gauge the risk the virus posed on a given day and plan accordingly.

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“The team members at Grand Forks Public Health have demonstrated competence, creativity, perseverance, and adherence to the science in the face of political pressures and intense media scrutiny,” Swanson wrote.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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