When Dr. Jared Florance was asked if he was interested in the job of Prince William Health District director, state health officials described it as a “quiet, rural health district.”
Twenty-one years later on the last day before his retirement, Florance laughed at that description.
“I fell for it hook, line and sinker,” he said.
But he soon found out that while Prince William may have been rural at the time, its population continued to grow and has doubled since then to about 360,000.
Prince William is now hardly rural.
Florance also said he found it never to be quiet.
As soon as he arrived on the job, Florance found himself smack in the middle of his first public health crisis. The IBM plant near Manassas had contaminated wells in the area with dry cleaning solvents it had been using to make computer chips.
Residents were concerned for their health and it was Florance’s job to reassure and calm those fears as well as ensure their safety.
The health district did so by testing wells.
“No one got sick,” Florance said. “It was a matter of putting things into perspective.”
And, it was quite an introduction for him into the world of public health, he said.
Keeping a perspective on health problems and health risks plays a large role in the public health business, Florance said. The public needs enough information to be knowledgeable but doesn’t need to be worried with too many worst case scenarios.
There have been many environmental issues related to health that Florance has dealt with during his tenure, including rabies and West Nile virus.
After three cats with different backgrounds and owned by different families tested positive for rabies in the late 1980s, Florance ordered a cat quarantine for a few weeks.
Health officials were out testing as many feral cats as they could find. Cat owners also brought their pets into veterinarian offices for testing.
“Vets were saying that they were seeing cats that had not come in for check-ups in years,” Florance said.
That was a time to go public with a health concern as it was in recent years when the presence of the West Nile virus was detected in the county.
“It really is very important that to protect public health you have to protect the environment,” Florance said.
Other health issues such as AIDS and tuberculosis have been handled with a quieter approach.
“We got the work done without creating fear,” Florance said.
Such widespread fear could have been a major problem in recent years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the following concerns over possible bioterrorism.
Like so many times before, however, Prince William health officials and the medical community were on top of the situation having started to work, train and educate themselves about bioterrorism at least six years before.
When a doctor contacted the health department about a patient who could have been exposed to anthrax in October 2001, he was told to immediately send the patient to a regional facility for further testing.
That patient was Leroy Richmond, a Brentwood postal employee. Richmond had contracted anthrax. The quick actions by pubic health and medical officials likely played a role in Richmond’s survival, Florance said.
Solid working relationships with the medical communities in the area, other agencies and governments are among the accomplishments Florance said he is most proud of.
When Delegate Michelle McQuigg, R-51 District, introduced legislation in to create the Prince William Health Partnership Authority, it became the state’s first.
The authority is designed as an umbrella organization for health officials, agencies and businesses to work together for common goals while providing them with the legal protection to do so.
“This gives people a chance to have input into how their needs are met,” Florance said.
Florance said the authority will go far to provide necessary health services while eliminating duplication.
Another partnership developed by the health district 10 years ago was the free clinic where those without insurance can be treated for free or reduced costs.
“We started the free clinic with a couple of volunteers from the health district and no money,” Florance said.
Today the clinic has a paid staff of two, a budget and more volunteers. As Prince William’s immigrant population grows, the clinic is there to help.
There have been many other partnerships and programs that have been developed to meet the area’s changing and growing needs.
“I’d like to see more partnerships flourish,” Florance said.
Yet there are still many health problems lurking in the future, said Florance, such as Avian flu and SARS.
“I think the challenge will be with the infectious diseases as the world becomes more mobile,” he said.
Obesity and an increase in the number of asthma cases are other concerns to be addressed.
While there is much to do, much has already been done.
He credits his staff for the health district’s accomplishments.
“I have a lot of talented people here,” he said. “They have given me the time to concentrate on some of the bigger issues, to look at things down the road.”
Many of the district’s managers have been with Florance for most of his 21 years. Anne Terrell joined the health district a couple of weeks after Florance arrived. She is its nurse manager.
“When I got here, [Florance’s son] was in diapers. He is now at West Point,” Terrell said.
Florance has been at the helm during a most difficult and changing time for public health in Prince William, Terrell said.
“He’s been on the cutting edge for all of the challenges with a growing population and a changing population,” Terrell said. “To be able to meet all that within the confines of being part of a government agency is amazing.”
“He’s done an outstanding job,” said Jeff Lake, deputy commissioner with the Virginia Department of Health. Lake traveled from Richmond Tuesday to attend Florance’s retirement party in Manassas.
“One of the great accomplishments he has made is in the partnerships he has established,” Lake said, adding that Florance is respected and admired in the community, especially during crisis situations.
Terrell and Lake said Florance will be missed.
“I have mixed feelings about retiring. I’m going to miss all the people here,” Florance said. Still, “It’s time. I need the rest.”
It’s been a long and demanding year for the 57-year-old doctor who served three months in Iraq promoting public health with his National Guard unit. Florance, who has been a member of the Vermont National Guard for more than 12 years, is its state surgeon.
Florance said he doesn’t have any immediate plans for the future but will remain active in the guard and return to Iraq if needed.
Florance said he has been with the guard too long and has been through a lot with them.
“If they need me I will go,” he said.
But for the time being, “I’m going to sit back, put my feet up and watch the trees grow for awhile,” Florance said. He also is in the midst of building a house in Vermont where he plans on spending half the year when he is not in Prince William County.
Still, Florance said he is giving himself some time to decide if he wants to completely retire or possibly do a bit of consulting work.
Dr. Alison Ansher will be the district’s acting director after Florance’s departure.
Lake said that given the district’s location in the greater metropolitan Washington, D.C., area he expects there will be a lot of interest in the job. He said he hopes to begin interviewing for the permanent position in October.