PRIMGHAR—As the coronavirus pandemic continues, O’Brien County Public Health is looking for a new leader.
Judy Nieuwenhuis has resigned from the public health office’s position of part-time nurse administrator.
She originally planned on staying on the job until June 18; however, the county’s five-member board of health unanimously accepted her letter of resignation — dated May 21 — during a special meeting Tuesday, May 26, and decided to pay her hourly rate of $30.84 for the time she would have worked through June 18.
“It is with a heavy heart but also much relief that I am notifying you of my resignation as the O’Brien County Nurse Administrator for Public Health,” Nieuwenhuis wrote in her resignation letter. “My hope is that you all will provide better communication, encouragement, expectations and guidance for the next administrator.”
Dr. Ryan Becker of Sheldon, who has been the chair of the board of health since January, praised the job Nieuwenhuis did.
“We appreciate the time that Judy did spend with us,” he said. “As I told her, I wished it would have ended on better terms, but we do appreciate what she did for us. There’s no ill feelings on my end. She was not forced to resign. She was not asked to resign. She did electively.”
Nieuwenhuis said she ultimately resigned from the position of nurse administrator because she thought she could not do anything right in that role.
“Honestly, I would have stayed if I would’ve had some support, but when you feel like everything you’re doing is wrong, then it wears on you,” she said.
One reason she cited for her resignation was she has been told by the O’Brien County Board of Supervisors previously that the public health office should never be closed during its regular business hours no matter what.
“We needed to always keep the public health office open, that there was no excuse for it ever closing and that it was poor management pretty much on my part,” Nieuwenhuis said.
The public health office is located on the first floor of the county courthouse in downtown Primghar.
Becker noted the public health office should always be open and accessible during its regular business hours.
“When we get reports from the board of supervisors or people within the offices at the courthouse that the office of public health was closed, then we start to raise questions as to why,” he said.
“That’s where I as chair get a little heat, too, when it comes to why is the public health office closed when we have three part-time nurses there, plus a full-time office manager,” he said.
To Nieuwenhuis, the main difference between the public health office and the other county offices in the courthouse is members of the public go to them, while it is the other way around for public health staff members.
“When I tried to explain that we’re different from the rest of the offices, I was pretty much told that the supervisors didn’t care,” she said.
“They expected our office to be open,” she said. “It didn’t matter if somebody was sick or somebody was on vacation or whatever.”
Becker explained what the board of health was told by Nieuwenhuis about the public health office being randomly closed during its regular business hours.
“The responses were that they may be out on one of their projects — giving immunizations or going to do a foot clinic or whatever it might be — but we still wanted them to be available at least,” he said.
“She did express that they could call her phone, which was good, but just the perception that it wasn’t easily accessible and available was starting to bring up some red flags,” he said.
Nieuwenhuis, a registered nurse, was hired in April 2018 to work in the public health office and became its nurse administrator in October 2018.
She could not recall one time during her tenure with the public health office when a member of the board of supervisors or the board of health stopped by to ask how her employees were doing.
“I never heard from them, except for at the board meetings,” Nieuwenhuis said.
Becker noted the members of the board of health always are available via phone or e-mail to public health staff.
“The board does not all reside within Primghar, including myself, so it’s not like we can swing over there every day to check on them,” Becker said. “We just go by what they’re doing and what they’re reporting in regard to that.”
Nieuwenhuis also said she was not happy with how the board of health’s regular meeting went on May 13. The gathering was held electronically due to the courthouse being closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
She noted all of the board of health’s members were at the meeting except for one, who called in. Diane Anderson, a community health consultant with the Iowa Department of Public Health, also called in to the gathering.
Nieuwenhuis said there were four other people who called in to attend the meeting, but they did not identify themselves, although she thought they should have.
“There were four people that weren’t recognized that listened in on the meeting,” she said. “I really doubt that Dr. Becker had been complained to a number of times about our office, but nobody ever came and said anything to us.”
Becker explained his view of the board of health’s May 13 meeting.
“When it comes to a public meeting, those that are in attendance from the board identify themselves and those that are a part of the public, if they want to be present, don’t need to identify themselves,” he said.
“Even if you go to a public meeting, you don’t have to identify who you are, why you’re there,” he said. “That’s why they weren’t identified and they don’t have to be put on the spot either.”
The way the May 13 meeting went was another reason Nieuwenhuis resigned.
“It’s not what I wanted,” she said. “I would’ve stayed there, but when you have people that get on and listen, but won’t identify themselves because they knew I’d recognize their voice, then to me it’s kind of a hostile environment and they’re looking for you to get in trouble.”
Nieuwenhuis noted she spent many hours putting together a plethora of programs during her time working for the public health office.
“I was paid part time, but I pretty much worked full time because there were a lot of hours that I put in after work that I never put down,” she said.
“I was never trying to misuse my position,” she said. “I put in a lot of hours that I never even wrote down because I always tried to make things better.”
One of the programs she put together for the public health office was Caring for Kindergarten, which is dedicated to aiding younger students throughout the county’s public and private schools in being able to afford healthy snacks during the academic year.
“I really hope they continue with the programs that I started because I know all the teachers in the elementary schools loved when I came and did my presentation for the kids,” Nieuwenhuis said.
The Caring for Kindergarten program was a recipient of a $10,000 grant through the Valero Energy Foundation in 2018.
“We still have quite a bit of that money from Valero so I don’t want it to get put into something else that it’s not supposed to be put in,” Nieuwenhuis said.
Becker would like to see the programs Nieuwenhuis started continue — especially Caring for Kindergarten — but he said those decisions would be up to the next nurse administrator.
“Judy did a really good job with gaining access to funds that were donated,” he said. “She did an excellent job there so that we could have some of those snacks for the kindergartners, too, especially for those that couldn’t afford it.”
Nieuwenhuis has no immediate plans to find another job.
Instead, the 61-year-old rural Hospers woman intends to spend time with her husband, Jim, and other family members, such as her five granddaughters all under the age of 3.
“Later on, I might decide to do something else,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I have lots of support from other members of the community that have told me that they would give me a reference if I needed one, but right now I’m just going to be done.”