The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

By Lee Revis
Editor, Valdez Star 

Public health clinic needs new nurse

Agency relying on traveling nurses and off-site services


Organizers of the upcoming flu shot drill coming to the hospital in Valdez this Tuesday are not the only ones in Valdez missing the services of a full-time public health nurse. Pam Shirrell, who worked tirelessly in that capacity for many years retired last August. Since then, the local office has been offering services on a more limited capacity and relying on an itinerant public health nurse.

"Pam retired in August," said Tim Struna, the Southcentral Region Nurse Manager for the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services. Since then, "we've been sending a public health nurse every two weeks of every month."

The local office has long-relied on itinerant health care professionals to deliver public health services in Valdez.

State-sponsored birth control services are one example. Clients needing prescriptions, exams, STD testing, pregnancy tests and other related services have had to rely on a traveling nurse practitioner or other professional to make a round in Valdez, usually every three months.

Other services, such as TB tests, booster shots and other services such as applying for WIC (Women, Infants, Children) nutrition program were available on fairly short notice.

The local office will be further stretched in the coming weeks – and possibly months – because the Administrative Officer at the Valdez office is moving from Valdez and will no longer work at the office as of this Friday.

"We're still going to do as much as we can," Struna said, noting clients will be directed to contact the Mat-Su public health office for help with services such as WIC. "It will be coordinated offsite."

Despite obvious challenges servicing public health needs, Struna said the Valdez office – and the health of the town's residents - will not be compromised by the temporary lack of full-time staff.

"That's not going to happen," he said.

He used the upcoming city-wide flu drill as an example.

"We do plan on sending a public health nurse to help with that event," he said.

Unfortunately, there is no firm timeline for filling the vacant positions, as much depends on the pool of qualified applicants Struna said.

Nurses are still a hot commodity in Alaska, and finding the right candidate to fill a spot in Valdez is not predictable.

"Our fingers are crossed that we have a strong applicant pool to fill that position," Struna said. "We're working as fast as the system allows us to."

According to the website run by the Alaska Division of Public Health, a first tier public health nurse can be a real foot in the door for newer degreed professionals.

"A great opportunity for Baccalaureate-prepared new nurse graduates or RNs who have not yet had any public health nursing experience," the website said. "The broad orientation, competency building and skills development in public health nursing received as a PHN I builds a strong foundation in generalist PHN practice. With at least one year of successful PHN experience, and completion of the training and orientation plan, the PHN I is ready to be promoted to the PHN II level."

A description for Alaska public health nurses and nurse practitioners says the job is both rewarding and challenging according to the website.

"It is known for its community-centered focus, autonomy, broad-based generalist practice applications and creative nursing interventions," the website says. "Public health nurses work in partnership with a wide spectrum of community partners and care providers. Public health nurses have a long legacy of caring and being respected in Alaska. We guard that public trust and appreciate the responsibility we have to Alaskans in protecting and promoting their health. We want Alaska to be the healthiest place on earth."


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