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Cape Cod Has Uncommon COVID-19 Resource — Its Own Health Director


As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds on Cape Cod, the Barnstable County health director has played a unique role in getting out information.

On his daily conference call with local media, Sean O’Brien gives a Cape-wide count of cases and answers questions.

While he keeps it short, his role is unique because few, if any, other Massachusetts counties have a comparable public health official.

“Yeah, you might not find one in New England, either. We’re kind of unicorns,” he said.

In rural Franklin County, a voluntary council of governments does employ a director of health, but regional efforts are the exception.

Cape Cod’s Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment dates back to 1926. As the towns grew and hired their own health agents, the county focused on things like public health nursing and emergency management.

O’Brien said the department is a team effort, and the team saw the need for a regional voice on COVID-19.

“We really saw the need for at least a voice and a consistent way of providing information out to the public and out to the towns,” he said. “And so that’s really why we figured we would take on this role, and we would support the health agents that way. They’re the front lines of this.”

Here’s how he ended a recent press call.

“Before we go, you know, we really appreciate you getting the word out to everybody,” he said. “As we get into this critical two weeks, I know it’s repetitive, and I know it may not sell papers or be great radio or anything, but please if you could help us reinforce that message of social distancing, and people staying at home. We just really appreciate it, OK?”

It’s a message of promoting public safety, which he’s been sounding since the early days of the pandemic.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.