Debbie Swanson, who led Grand Forks Public Health through pandemic, set to retire this month
At the end of this month Swanson will be retiring from her director role. It's a position she has filled since 2015.
GRAND FORKS — Steadfast, calm and articulate.
For staff members who have worked closely with Grand Forks Public Health Director Debbie Swanson, those are a few of the words they use to describe her.
At the end of this month, Swanson will be retiring from her director role, a position she has held since 2015. Altogether, she has been with the department for 38 years.
“I haven’t really met more people that are more passionate about public health issues than Debbie,” said Mandy Burbank, a dietitian at GFPH. “She genuinely cares about people. And she really genuinely cares about our community.”
Prior to starting at Grand Forks Public Health, Swanson worked as a staff nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. She then moved to Grand Forks when she got married.
Swanson first took a job as a public health nurse with the city, and in 1995 became the nursing and nutrition manager, a position she held until becoming director.
“When I first started working in public health I wasn’t really sure what my career path might be,” Swanson said. “I’d always worked in hospital settings before and when I started as a public health nurse, I kind of fell in love with prevention.”
Swanson said she also fell in love with policy work, another role of the director.
Though the transition into the director position went “relatively smoothly,” Swanson said there was still a lot to learn.
“For example, I did not know a lot about environmental health before I started in this role as director. So I’ve really had to listen carefully to my colleagues in the department who are experts in a lot of areas,” she said. “I had to learn a lot about mosquito control and the nuances of larviciding and spraying and mapping and all those kinds of things — and West Nile virus.”
Swanson has also found a passion for working with tobacco prevention.
“That's the work that I think has probably been the most impactful in terms of health to our community,” Swanson said.
Some other highlights include helping to start an immunization coalition in 1994; working on the Alliance for Healthcare Access project, which helped form Spectra Health; establishing Spectra’s dental clinic and working with Altru and UND’S Master of Public Health program to conduct the 2022 Community Health Assessment.
Another memorable moment in her career happened early in her time as director. In 2015, a mercury spill occurred on a sidewalk on North Fourth Street near Wilder Elementary. Children were exposed to the spill and the situation required bringing in environmental protection agencies as well as state agencies.
“It was a very short-term thing, but it was a very concerning thing and it was very new to me,” Swanson said. “Fortunately, there was a team ready to respond and we utilized the resources of the city, the sanitation department, the public works department and others.”
Swanson also recalls her work with communicable diseases in the city including the measles outbreak in 1986, an H1N1 outbreak in 2009, a tuberculosis outbreak in 2012 and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Work during the pandemic brought its challenges for the entire department, including mistrust toward public health and the impact the virus was having in the community.
“I always like to tell people that public health is economic health,” Swanson said. “If you have a healthy community, people have resources, they have a job, they have housing. So when you protect public health and when you fund public health as it should be funded, it leads to economic health too. People can start businesses. There can be a vibrancy to your community.”
Through it all, Swanson said it was a team effort.
“I’m really proud of the work of everyone in this department, and especially how they responded to COVID,” she said. “Everyone gave what they could. They were asked to do things outside maybe their area of expertise, and they rose to the challenge."
During the pandemic, Burbank said Swanson would end every meeting by telling everyone how proud she was to be part of the Grand Forks Public Health team.
“I always felt like we were colleagues, side by side," Burbank said. "She wasn't necessarily above me. She was right in the trenches with us.”
The pandemic also highlighted the importance of health equity, including how GFPH was distributing information to the public and making sure messages were targeted to everyone.
Accessible vaccine sites are another highlight. GFPH provided vaccination clinics across the county within a 10-mile radius of residents. Swanson credits Michael Dulitz, the opioid response project coordinator, and others within the department for their efforts.
Swanson’s devotion for health equity is noticeable not only by those within the department, but also those in the city, including City Administrator Todd Feland.
“One thing I really do know about Debbie is her commitment and her passion to serve all people in our community, and in particular those people that are underserved with health,” he said. “She’s really taken a special issue of trying to find resources and to serve populations that are underserved from a public health perspective. That’s really been a passion of hers.”
A health equity grant the department received in 2021 has helped put funding toward public outreach and building relationships with underserved populations.
Throughout her time as director, Swanson said she has been able to mentor others, including students and GFPH employees.
“I always sort of had in mind that this might be my final job with the city and in my career,” she said. “And so I wanted to give back as much as I could to mentoring others. I love working with students and early career professionals.”
Dulitz, who worked with Swanson as a graduate student prior to joining GFPH, said Swanson has helped him in his career.
“I’ve been working at Grand Forks Public Health now for five years and she’s been an incredible mentor during that time. She’s been the right amount of everything for me in my career,” Dulitz said. “She provides the guidance when I'm looking for it. She knows how to be hands off when I need to learn things and stuff like that. It's really been a huge career builder working with her.”
After her retirement, Swanson plans to remain involved in public health. She is a member of the steering committee for the Blue Zones Project, which is a public-private partnership between Altru Health System, the Altru Foundation and the North Dakota Department of Health aiming to transform community health. Swanson has also been involved on a national level with the American Public Health Association.
Looking at the future, Swanson said she is hopeful for public health and the new perspectives people are bringing into the career field.
“I’m really excited about the new talent in public health that’s coming up,” she said. “They’re smart, they’re committed, they’re passionate. They use data to tell a compelling story and that in turn leads to new programs and innovations that improve health.”