Portrait headshot of Dr. Iulia Vann.
Dr. Iulia Vann will begin her new role as director of the Allegheny County Health Department late summer, according to county officials. (Photo Courtesy Allegheny County)

The Allegheny County Board of Health voted Monday to approve Dr. Iulia Vann as director of the Allegheny County Health Department.

Vann, a medical doctor with a master’s degree in public health, most recently worked for Guilford County in North Carolina, where she has served as health director since 2020. Vann previously held a similar role in Orange County, North Carolina.

The Board’s 7-0 approval Monday ended a nearly 18-month vacancy at the county’s top health post and a six-month search to fill the position, which considered 40 applicants and four finalists in a national search.

“It is an honor to be selected to lead the Allegheny County Health Department,” Vann said in a statement after her appointment. “I look forward to bringing the creativity and energy that defined my time in North Carolina to Allegheny County to help protect public health for the residents of Western Pennsylvania and ensure we are building communities where everyone is safe and thriving.”

Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato personally interviewed Vann twice, according to search committee co-chair Dr. Edie Shapira.

“Dr. Vann’s passion for protecting public health and track record of taking on big challenges is exactly why we want her to be the next Director of the Allegheny County Health Department,” Innamorato said in a statement. She thanked the “dozens of community leaders who contributed input and thoughts to the search process to help shape our shared vision for this critically important position.”

Acting director Patrick Dowd, who had served on an interim basis since January 2023, announced last week he would be leaving the post to become CEO of the City’s Environmental Charter School. Dowd will continue in the post until July 9, at which time Dr. Barbara Nightingale will step in as acting director until Vann arrives “later this summer,” according to a county press release.

In December, a coalition of 35 organizations and 37 individuals, under the group Equitable and Just Greater Pittsburgh Network, petitioned the county to prioritize social determinants of health and disparities “in all their forms” as it considered candidates for the top health post.

“I’m happy there’s a new health director,” said Jason Beery, director of the Equitable and Just Greater Pittsburgh Network, after the vote on Monday. He said he was unable to comment on Vann’s credentials and regrets there was not a more robust opportunity for public engagement in the selection process.

In its letter, the group had also requested a public selection process, which didn’t occur. The nominee was not publicly identified until the vote came Monday afternoon. Beery said he was “disappointed” that there was not an opportunity for public participation in the selection process.

A group of five individuals sit at a panel table in a wood-paneled room. There are flags and an emblem on the wall behind them. They appear to be engaged in a formal discussion or meeting.
The Allegheny County Board of Health voted 7-0 Monday to appoint Dr. Iulia Vann as the county's new health director. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

In response to criticism regarding the lack of public involvement, County Spokesperson Abigail Gardner said that “the search firm conducted interviews with stakeholders, surveys were circulated at our All In meetings, and through that process we received direct feedback from dozens of community leaders on what they were to see in the next director.” In total, this involved more than 60 interviews with stakeholders, community leaders and environmental groups, Gardener said.

Beery pointed to the recent “heat dome,” which brought a week of record-setting temperatures to Pittsburgh and much of the American Midwest and Northeast. In the face of climate change, Beery said, the new director has an opportunity to prioritize the underlying factors — like poverty and housing insecurity — that shape health outcomes in the county’s climate action plan and comprehensive plan moving forward.

“There's an opportunity here for the health director to really lead in promoting public health and addressing health inequities in both of these upcoming plans,” he said.

“We hope that in the future there will be more public engagement, more public processes and just more transparency, accountability and relationship building with the wider public from the director and the health department in general.”

Vacancy filled

Allegheny County’s previous health director, Dr. Debra Bogen, served as the county’s top health official through much of the pandemic era until she was called up to the state’s secretary of health post by Gov. Josh Shapiro in January 2023. Bogen remains acting secretary in title because Republican lawmakers have blocked her confirmation in the state Senate.

On Monday, the nine-member Board of Health approved Vann as the next head of the 300-person department, with responsibilities including:

Eight members of the Board of Health continue to serve under expired terms, which Innamorato can use to reshape the county bureaucracy following 12 years of appointments by former Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

“ACHD has a vast set of responsibilities under its purview, from restaurant inspections to regulating asbestos remediation, and much more. Protecting public health is a top priority for my administration and I look forward to having a confirmed Director in place to lead the department in the very near future,” Innamorato said in a press release last week before the confirmation.

Monitoring the air

“Dr. Vann takes charge of the Health Department at a critical moment,” said Zach Barber, clean air advocate with Penn Environment, in a statement.

“County Executive Innamorato has already delivered on one of our top recommendations — choosing a new Health Department Director who brings a public health background,” Barber said in a statement on Monday. “Toxic industrial air pollution is among our region’s most pressing health concerns, killing hundreds of people every year. We hope Dr. Vann will approach air pollution through a health-centered lens, focusing on protecting residents by reducing unhealthy emissions.”

Jason Beery, director of he Equitable and Just Greater Pittsburgh Network, addresses the search for a new health department director during the Allegheny County Board of Health’s quarterly meeting on Jan. 17 at the Allegheny County Courthouse. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

The new director, Barber said, will be responsible for overseeing the county’s Air Program and implementing two new Biden Administration policies — a federal PM2.5 standard and new coke oven rules from the EPA that govern benzene emissions — which Barber said could be “lifesaving.” Barber said he hopes the new director will approach air quality as it does any public health crisis, and “think creatively about how to address pollution.”

The director will also face an uphill climb in restoring fiscal stability to the county’s Air Quality program, which has faced increased scrutiny after budget shortfalls and attempts to access funds intended for community projects via the Clean Air Fund.

Nickole Nesby, who served as Mayor of Duquesne from 2018 to 2022, addressed the Board on Monday before Vann’s appointment. “For far too long we’ve been ignored…” she said. “We’ve not received the resources necessary to maintain our health.”

“We are dying at a rapid pace,” she said. “We do not have enough time to bring a new individual up to speed. They need to be ready day one.”

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at Rtvsrece and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@rtvsrece.com and on Instagram and X @quinnglabicki.

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Quinn Glabicki is a writer and photographer covering climate and environment for Rtvsrece. He is also a Report for America corps member. Quinn uses visual and written mediums to tell stories about...