The County Health Department has a huge responsibility, but you're never a hero in your own hometown, or in this case, your own county. Here's a look at what they do.

As human beings, we’re a fragile lot. We just don’t know it. Most of us go about our day’s activities with only minor hiccups. A runny nose from an allergy flare-up or a little indigestion from the spicy tacos eaten for lunch. But most of the time, many of us take our 98.6 temp for granted. We’re feelin’ good—until we’re not.

Our individual  immune systems work great in general, but the problem is we’re social creatures that can carry some nasty microscopic bugs that are passed on as simply within the air we breath or the water we drink. Should you be unfortunate enough to be in close proximity, and tag—you’re it. Only then do we think about the importance of good health and the prevention of getting a communicable disease. Never fear. There is a county department to the rescue that works diligently among the shadows, right under our noses and most of us don’t know it.

 “We like to say it’s the best kept secret,” says Michelle Steinkamp, administrator of the Phelps-Maries County Health Department. She says there are a lot of public misperception about public health—most of them negative, such as public health services are provided primarily for the poverty stricken among us. Or that it is best known for the place to go for treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. While the latter may be true, the much broader responsibility is the prevention of the spread of communicable diseases, which is why the department exists as mandated in the Missouri State Statutes.
The department has “environmental” responsibilities as well, such as day care, hotel and restaurant inspections.
“We are always out there protecting the public the best we can,” she notes. “We’re not perfect—we can’t be there 24/7, so we might miss some things, but we try.”
Director Steinkamp also says their role has been expanded to reflect the needs within our community. For example, they work with coalitions and community action groups such as PPCAN that works towards the prevention of child abuse. Since opiate abuse has become a nuisance within our community, Steinkamp believes that the health department will play a bigger role in prevention in that arena.

Since many in Phelps County live outside the city and are not tapped into the city sewer system, the department is mandated to take a collective look at septic tank operation. “We protect, permit and try to help homeowners install the best septic system for the household to last as long as possible,” she says. “We know it’s an expensive investment, so we want to see that it is installed properly so the homeowner doesn’t have to go back for repairs.”

The county health department operates under the state’s ordinance for most of their inspection functions because individual health can quickly become a much bigger public health issue. Most people associate the motto “to serve and protect” with police and fire departments, but it is the same mission of the Phelps-Maries County Health Department. It’s all abut vigilance and prevention and Michelle Steinkamp and her staff are on top of it.