Covid 19 and the international, national, state and local responses to the coronavirus have changed our lives in many ways. For weeks many of us talked about “when things get back to normal.” Nowadays those discussions are more about creating a new normal for our communities. The ways we interact with others, how we shop and even how we work will be different. In many ways our lives have been forever changed. As we have worked through these challenges, individuals have stepped up to exhibit leadership during these trying times. One such person is Alleghany resident Andy Blethen.
Andy’s parents are from Massachusetts. They moved to North Carolina when Andy’s father took a position as a history professor at Western Carolina University. Coming from an educational and academic household, there was an expectation that Andy would go on to college after high school. After high school Andy enrolled in the health promotions program at Appalachian State University (ASU).
At ASU, Andy gravitated toward environmental health after working an internship in that field with AppHealthCare. Environmental health focuses on keeping a community healthy. This is done through regulations, enforcement of rules, and education and outreach.
As the environmental health supervisor for AppHealthCare, Andy leads a team that oversees permitting and inspections of hotels and restaurants; pools, spas and tattoo artists; child care and long-term care facilities; and water protection through the permitting and inspection of private drinking water wells and onsite septic systems. While these tasks are regulatory in nature, Andy emphasizes that the goal of his staff is to aid in building and maintaining a strong, healthy community. Realizing that their work has a direct impact on the local economy, they engage in outreach with the community. His work group conducts orientations for realtors and training sessions for restaurant owners. Their desire is help businesses and individuals take a proactive approach to public health.
Covid 19 has brought a heightened awareness to public health and especially AppHealthCare. Andy points to their designation as a federally qualified health center as making them eligible for millions of dollars in federal funding and grants. He describes a recent $400,000 grant that was recently awarded which will be used to expand dental programs to our school aged children. (Note: AppHealthCare has had a dental program for years). Oral care is often cited an important factor in school performance, self confidence and later employment opportunities. Roughly 17% of AppHealthCare’s funding comes from local sources in their service area of Alleghany, Ashe and Watauga counties. For each dollar of Alleghany County funding, AppHealthCare provides $11 in services for the county’s residents.
One of the key elements of the success of AppHealthCare is that the employees are not distant bureaucrats – the staff lives in the communities they serve. Andy and his wife Robin live in the Ennice community. They have five children aged 19 to 28. Andy and Robin enjoy spending time with their family, hiking with their 3 year-old Labrador retriever, and floating the river.
As we in Alleghany County continue to proactively develop the “new normal” coming out of the current pandemic, AppHealthCare and their dedicated staff such as Andy Blethen will play a key role. Community health is a foundational component workforce and economic development, and long-term economic vitality.