The Virginia Department of Health has hired a new director for the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts.
Dr. Cynthia Morrow will step into the new role full time in January. Until then, she is splitting her days between the health districts and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, where she is co-leading an effort to expand health systems sciences.
The health districts have been without a director throughout the pandemic. Early this year, the Virginia Department of Health said that Dr. Stephanie Harper was on leave and then later that she was no longer with the department. No explanation was offered.
The department added interim director responsibilities to Dr. Laura Kornegay, who is the director of the Central Shenandoah Health District. Kornegay brought Dr. Molly O’Dell out of retirement to lead the local districts’ pandemic response. O’Dell served as director of the districts before Harper and then as director of the New River Health District. Dr. Thomas Kerkering, who retired as Carilion Clinic’s chief of infectious diseases and is a professor at VTC, also joined in the pandemic response.
Morrow said that effort isn’t changing.
Morrow and her husband, Dr. John Epling, moved to Roanoke three years ago once their youngest of three children graduated from high school. Epling is a native of the area and is in family practice with Carilion Clinic.
Morrow has been at the medical school and last year taught at Hollins University and helped launch its public health program.
She served as commissioner of health for Onondaga County, New York, from 2005 to 2014 and held the Lerner Chair for Health Promotion at Syracuse University.
“I come from a family of public health practitioners. My father worked for the World Health Organization with USAID and my mother was a nurse practitioner for the International Council of Nurses,” she said. “I had the extraordinary privilege of growing up in Africa and Europe. I think that has shaped who I am and why I am invested in communities.”
Morrow received a medical degree and master’s in public health from Tufts University School of Medicine. Her residency in internal medicine was at the Medical University of South Carolina. She is a consulting editor for the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and has edited five books on public health.
Morrow said in her youth she questioned whether public health was her calling and spent a summer traveling and living in a small village in West Africa.
“It was such a formative experience because of the premature mortality there. To see such young people die of completely preventable illness, it just cemented the trajectory,” she said.
Morrow said she plans to go on a listening tour of the communities in the districts that include Roanoke, Salem, Covington and the counties of Alleghany, Botetourt, Craig and Roanoke.
“In the ideal world, local health departments are the key strategists in their communities so they act as bridges between the health care systems,” she said. She said she plans to work with the different health systems, the medical school, the research institute and human services agencies to look at the differences in health outcomes that are affected by race, income, education, neighborhood and transportation.
“It’s really incumbent upon health departments to look at disparities, and look to raise the level of health for all of their community members. That’s one issue that is not unique to the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts. It’s true of every community,” she said.