Meet Dr. Kathryn Anderson, the New Health Commissioner in Onondaga County

The physician arrived in Syracuse to work at Upstate four months before COVID-19 hit. The pandemic put her on a different professional path

By Stefan Yablonski

As the calendar flips to February, people start thinking about Valentine’s Day.

However, physician Kathryn Anderson hopes people don’t forget about their healthy New Year’s resolutions.

Onondaga County’s new health commissioner is working hard to ensure residents have a healthy environment in which to live every day.

An assistant professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology at Upstate Medical University, she came to Upstate in 2019 after working at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She was confirmed by the legislature in November 2022.

“I helped guide the Syracuse area’s response during the COVID-19 pandemic. I got into public health through my epidemiology,” the Minnesota native said.

She has been studying mosquito borne diseases for more than 20 years, she added

“I moved out here to Upstate in 2019 so I could be working more closely with folks that I have been collaborating with,” she said. “I came to Upstate to work with them, with my family — my husband and two little girls 3 and 6.”

She said she loves pets. But, due to her job, she doesn’t have any.

“I have no pets. Part of that we — at least pre-COVID — we traveled a lot internationally. Actually, we spent a lot of our time living in Thailand. So pets didn’t really go along with that lifestyle,” she said.

“When my family and I moved here, it was for that position at Upstate — but then COVID came about three months after we arrived, maybe four months. And I got pulled into the incident command response at Upstate, which was a new experience for me,” she said.

“This was my first time kind of living in the community where I was trying to respond to a public health threat. I found it really challenging, but really satisfying. I got to meet with all sorts of different people in the community who are all trying to come together and respond. I found it satisfying and it had me thinking more about doing something that was maybe a bit more broader impact, a bit closer to home. So, when this position [of commissioner of health in Onondaga County] became available, it felt right.”

It was kind of coming together, she got to know a lot of the folks here through the COVID response, “so it kind of naturally lead into itself,” she said.

The leadership style she is trying to emulate is “service leadership.”

“In this position, I think of myself as being at the service of two different groups in our community, working to serve our community and I am also here to serve the people that I work with in the health department — to make sure that they have opportunities to grow that they have the autonomy to get their jobs done. I am supporting them in every way I can,” she said.

What is public health?

“A couple things I think about that. One thing at the front of my brain since I started this position is public health does fundamentally important jobs. But they are jobs that if people don’t know you are doing it they won’t recognize that it’s a fundamentally important task until there is a problem.

Testing the water in Skaneateles Lake, making sure the restaurants are safe, kids are vaccinated,” she said. “So, public health is actually the absence of a problem.”

That can be hard for some people to appreciate, she noted.

“And so one thing, I think that has maybe contributed to, I’d say an under-appreciation of public health, sometimes, even the misunderstanding of public health — is public health is not speaking up enough about what we do and being visible enough, promoting enough — how public health touches almost every aspect of people’s lives from the time you wake up in the morning to the time you go to sleep at night,” she added. “I think people don’t really understand that. So it is easy to under-appreciate the role of science in pubic health.”

“The other thing that I think we saw in real time in COVID was the challenges of communicating to the public that some people may not fully appreciate the role of science in public health or how the scientific process works,” she said. “That was happening in real time in COVID. But we didn’t have time to wait for years until we did a lot of research and then say, ‘OK now we know how it spreads … now we know all these things, now we can act.’ We had to act in real time; and based on the best information that we had. We learned new things as time went on. The information changed.

I think that was also hard for the public to proves and appreciate.

This isn’t misinformation — we’re not trying to mislead you. We’re just learning new things in real time. That’s why mask recommendations changed for example. It’s just the scientific process.”

Talking COVID

“Nobody wants to talk about COVID anymore. But we still need to talk about COVID. You’re right; we are not ‘post’ COVID. Thankfully we are in a situation right now where we have much better tools than we had years ago. We have antivirals; we have vaccines that help prevent deaths.  So we do have tools at our disposal that should hold off future crises,” she said.

“The problem we have right now is that people aren’t — high numbers of people — aren’t taking advantage of the tools. We know that individuals who are older than 65 are at highest risk of dying from COVID and people with compromise immune systems.

But only one in four people older than 65 in the United States have gotten their up to date booster, she pointed out.”

That’s “a huge, huge gap — a lot of preventable disease and death,” she stressed.

“We know that people older than 65 who get COVID get boosted. So there is a huge opportunity for where we could prevent death and sever disease — people need to be taking advantage of it,” she said.

COVID prevents COVID?

“I’ve heard that a lot. I’ve heard that even from people in my family. That is not true. It’s safe to say at this point now that anybody who is not up to date with their boosters is at risk,” she said. “I know people who are vaccinated back in early 2021 and have not been boosted. I’d say they are at risk as well. Anybody who’s not up to date is at risk.”

New data shows that people who had some COVID and never were vaccinated — the next time they get COVID, they are at much higher risk of getting severe disease and dying, she added. Those people in particular need to go out and get vaccinated, she said.

Does COVID-19 suppress other diseases?

“That’s an important question, because certainly we are all struggling under this burden of respiratory viruses that we’re seeing now — COVID, influenza and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] and it’s a big problem. It’s a big problem for everyone — health systems are being stressed and overwhelmed right now,” she said. “The easiest answer and probably the most honest answer is: we don’t quite know. We don’t know for sure what was the impact of the restrictions that we had in terms of mask wearing, schools being closed down … did it set us up for this triple epidemic?

It is possible that we know that viruses can interfere with each other, compete, so maybe the high amounts of COVID we’ve had set up some sort of biological environment where adults got less RSV. But we don’t really know.”

RSV seems to have peaked, but they’re seeing a lot more than they usually see, she added.

“What we’re seeing coming up right now, the big concern is, flu. Flu cases here are much higher than in the past 10 or more years. It started earlier in the season than normal and it’s rising at a faster rate than we’ve normally seen,” she said. “We are concerned that it will continue to rise and a situation like that overwhelms our emergency rooms. So, we are in the midst of a big problem. COVID cases in other parts of the state, other parts of the country, are going up. Right now our cases are higher than where they were at over that last few years — but cases, knock on wood, seem somewhat stable right now.”

Promoting good health

“That’s a really important question because if we look at our community and where we hope to make the biggest impact it would be in more preventive care —preventing chronic diseases making sure folks have health maintenance [access to care], everything they need to stay healthy,” she said. “So, for me it starts with things like making sure everybody has access to a primary care physician and get routine health care checkups, healthy food, healthy neighborhoods. The biggest thing would be to get a primary care physician and follow up with them regularly. Live a healthy lifestyle including exercise and make sure they arte up to date on their vaccines.

The expectation is she work 35 hours a week. “It’s easily that or more. But it’s been wonderful work, important work,” she said. “I really enjoy the natural beauty around the Syracuse area — hiking and being outside. I spend a lot of time with my kids and that brings me a lot of joy. My family is rather musical. My husband plays music and I sing with him, sometimes. We’re more of a small venue, open mic type family.”