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  • Health Director Flanagan to leave for Maricopa County

    FlanaganAfter more than 18 years with Pima County, Health Director Marcy Flanagan will bid farewell to Southern Arizona on June 7 and head north to Phoenix to meet the biggest challenge of her professional life: taking charge of the third-largest health district in the country.

    The Maricopa County Health Department serves a population of 4.1 million people living in 27 cities and towns and oversees mega-events such as the Super Bowl, BCS Championship Game and NCAA Final Four that can attract more than 120,000 people for extended periods.

    "The sheer size of it is a bit daunting," Flanagan said. "Maricopa County has incredibly large events, like the Super Bowl and huge concerts that come to town. Here we have the Gem Show, but that doesn't bring in crowds like you see in Phoenix. One outbreak during the Super Bowl and that's a public health nightmare. Hosting those sorts of gatherings in a place that size will be new."

    On the other side of the equation, Flanagan will leave behind concerns created by Pima County's proximity to Mexico, such as potential cross-border outbreaks of disease and the deaths of migrants crossing the desert, things that have required a great deal of cooperation with her counterparts in Sonora.

    "We worked a long time to develop good relationships with Border Health and the Mexican Consulate to do cross-border disease investigations," she said. "Last fall, we had a hepatitis A outbreak associated with seafood coming across the border, and we worked closely with those partners to identify the source and to mitigate the problem."

    Flanagan also looks back with pride at the relationship the Health Department built with the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health, which last year earned her agency a designation as an academic health department. 

    “It means that we collaborate in a partnership that is not only preparing the next generation of public health professionals but also allows for the development of our staff and allowing them to bring their experience and perspective to the educational process and to be a part of lectures and opportunities to be adjunct faculty and opportunities to write grants together. It’s just amazing that we can tap into their energy and their brains and their creativity.”

    Relationships are important to Flanagan, particularly those she built within the department over the last 18 years.

    “The staff in Maricopa County is terrific but I don’t have that history with them. I’ve known some of these people since my first day. I’m going to miss their passion. There are so many people here who I know I can call on any time and there’s that respect and that when I ask them to do something I know it will get done,” Flanagan said. “I’m so proud to see how far so many of our staff have come, and see people I’ve hired move up and grow. I’ll miss them.”

    Moving to Phoenix is something of a homecoming for Flanagan. A native of Battle Creek, Michigan, Flanagan moved to the Valley of the Sun in high school but fell in love with Tucson during her first visit just a few weeks after relocating, becoming particularly enamored with the University of Arizona.

    "My sister's boyfriend took me on a tour of campus and I remember going to the top of a parking garage that had a view of the UA Mall and I totally fell in love with the school and the city and that’s never left me," she said. "I'm going to miss that feeling that, even though Tucson is big – one million people – it's still a small town. There's always just a few degrees of separation between people. I like that about Tucson, that it's big enough that there's lots of things to do but it's small enough you can have an intimate relationship with the place. Everyone has told me I won't find anything close to the quality of Mexican food we have here."

    Flanagan joined the County Health Department in 2000 during her senior year at the University of Arizona. She started as an administrative support specialist with the anti-tobacco team, taking on ever-increasing responsibilities over the course of her tenure, subsequently becoming a program coordinator, program manager, senior program manager, division manager and deputy director before County administration tapped her for the Department's top job in May 2017.

    Her passion for her work comes from personal experience. Growing up in Michigan, her family benefitted from public health and other social assistance programs.

    “Coming to the Department and realizing we were helping the same kinds of families that I grew up in, I really connected with that and really felt like I was making a difference. When we provide WIC services or recruiting youth to do big projects, it really spoke to me and made me feel like this is where I was supposed to be. Public health is kind of the best of everything for me.”

    Flanagan begins her term as Maricopa County Health Director June 10, giving her only a weekend to prepare for her new role. Still, she’s excited.

    "I'm going to be living right downtown, two blocks from my office," she said. "I'm going through a major downsizing, from a four-bedroom, two-story house to a two-bedroom apartment. I'll be walking distance to the light rail system. Both of my kids tell me 'You don't need your car anymore, you can leave it with us.' Not happening."

    She plans frequent trips to Tucson to see her daughter and son, who now live on the University of Arizona campus. Her son lives in the same dorm she did.

    "My kids told me my whole office has to be decorated with U of A memorabilia. But I don't know if that will win me a lot of friends."

    In a coincidental twist, Flanagan's successor at the Health Department will be her predecessor from Maricopa County, Bob England. Also coincidentally, England takes over on an interim basis June 10.

    “He’s amazing. He told me, ‘We’re going to be best buds, like it or not,'” she said. “It took me working in public health to find a passion for it, but he’s one of those people who I think was born passionate about public health. I learn something from him every time I’m around him. Pima County is lucky to get him. They aren’t even going to miss me.”

    While the scale of her work will grow enormously in Maricopa County, Flanagan will take the same approach she has used here.

    “I’ve always challenged myself. I like challenges and opportunities to grow and I feel like this is a natural progression for my career, the opportunity to work in a larger community. I know I can do some really awesome things that started here and I’ve seen on this scale and that I know I can implement in Phoenix.”
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