Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, February 2, 2014
Community pitches in and makes it happen

Since the founding of the Monroe County Health Unit in 1936, two common themes have emerged.

First, the community showed time and time again its support for the work of its public health agency. Second, local health officials proved repeatedly their steadfast commitment to the mission of protecting and promoting the health of Keys residents.

In the earliest days, Keys residents staged theater presentations and movie nights, ran door-to-door campaigns with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and posted penny jars around town, all to raise funds to keep the unit's clinic operations afloat.

An editorial appearing in a local paper called for the clinic to receive funding from Key West and Monroe County, closing with the question: "Why isn't there a fund for public health work such as that carried out by the clinic?" In the mid-1950s, more than 4,000 residents heeded calls to board a mobile unit traveling through Keys neighborhoods giving free chest X-rays as part of a renewed tuberculosis prevention campaign. An editorial appearing in a local paper deemed not getting a chest X-ray a "great mistake" in light of reports that Monroe County was registering the highest TB rates in the state.

"Watch for the mobile unit and step right in. It is not necessary to undress," the editorial reads. "Will you do this for a better and safer America in which to live?"

In 1960, the public pressed the Board of County Commissioners so hard to restore funding cuts to the health unit that commissioners eventually relented.

Articles appearing in local press traced the proposal to cut the funding back to a county commissioner with interest in a development project. Earlier that year, health unit officials had filed legal charges against the project due to unsanitary sewage treatment practices.

In 1994, through tireless fundraising and community partnering efforts, the Roosevelt Sands Center opened to serve low-income families in and around Bahama Village.

In 2009, the community once again offered its support to local health officials during a short-lived outbreak of dengue in Key West. Residents participated in a sero-survey, offering blood samples and personal histories to health officials who were trying to determine the extent of the outbreak.

Community leaders joined DOH-Monroe and Florida Keys Mosquito Control on the frontlines of the outbreak, forming the Keys Action to Break the Cycle of Dengue partnership. More and more residents were encouraged to take preventive action to protect their own personal health and that of the community.

In the face of continued population growth and development, which posed increasing threats to public health, county health officials remained committed to protecting and promoting good health in the Keys.

In 1960, Monroe County Health Unit Director Dr. James L. Wardlaw responded to state Rep. Bernie C. Papy's accusations that he was "interfering with progress in the Keys" in issuing orders to close a development in the Upper Keys that was deemed unsanitary.

Local press quoted Wardlaw as saying: "I work for the state. My orders come from state health department headquarters in Jacksonville. I will continue to carry out the regulation unless instructed otherwise by my supervisors."

In the early 1970s, county health department director Dr. Gunnard Antell faced a similar situation. State Rep. Fred Tittle proposed that the health department monitor Keys waters around developments, and report to the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority where sewage treatment facilities should be installed based on results of its water testing efforts. Local press reported that Tittle's intention was "to curb pollution before it begins while allowing for continued development of the Keys."

Antell's response: "No one wants to deny development. But why wait until pollution happens? We would like for developers to install treatment plants."

Christopher Tittle is the spokesman for the Florida Public Health Department in Monroe County.

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