Public Health director named

Island County has a new leader in a department with wide-ranging responsibilities.

Island County has a new leader in a department with wide-ranging responsibilities over health and safety in the community.

Commissioners this week approved a contract appointing Dr. Shawn Morris, a native of South Whidbey, as director of Island County Public Health. He previously was the community and family health manager in the department.

Morris replaces Keith Higman, the longtime director of the department. Higman was appointed as the Public Health director in Skagit County last fall and officially took the position on Jan. 9.

As a naturopathic doctor, Morris said he brings a holistic perspective to public health by considering social and lifestyle factors and other elements that impact community health in complex and interrelated ways.

Before working for the county, he was a primary care physician at a clinic in Mukilteo. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in cultural geography and received his doctorate in naturopathic medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, “where he focused on community health systems and interned in a variety of nonprofit health centers in the Northwest and abroad,” according to an announcement from Public Health.

“Effective public health is based on creating and sustaining partnerships across a variety of sectors, and I look forward to building bridges, cultivating trust and leading a department that is responsive to community needs,” Morris said in the announcement.

Morris joins many other new county department directors. Since 2021, commissioners have hired new heads of planning, public works, budget, human services, human resources and facilities. The vacancies were created by retirements and people moving for new jobs.

Public Health is a large department with a $5.5 million annual budget and more than 50 employees who provide services across the county, including the municipalities. The office played a vital role in the community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but its reach goes well beyond communicable disease control.

Public Health has several branches that approach community health through different lenses.

Community Health, for example, provides care for newborns and pregnant mothers, supports access to healthy food, provides outreach and resources related to chronic diseases and monitors community health.

Environmental Health is concerned with how the environment, both natural and artificial, affects human health. It has programs to monitor and protect groundwater, inspect restaurants and investigate foodborne illnesses, regulate septic tanks and inspect school facilities.

Natural Resources focuses on protecting public health by monitoring and restoring the environment, including salmon recovery.

In addition, the director works with the county Board of Health to consider policies.

“There are a lot of moving parts, for sure,” Morris said.

Under the contract approved by commissioners, Morris will earn $106,000 a year.