New county health commissioner will work to create programs that support healthy behaviors

A little more than a month into his new position, Clark County’s newest health commissioner says he is respecting the past while building a foundation for the future. 

“I think we’re seeing the public health system changing because we have a changing Clark County,” Chris Cook says.

Cook, 45, is a lifelong Clark County resident and no stranger to public health needs in Southwest Ohio. Before taking the reins in February, he was assistant health commissioner at the Clark County Combined Health District for a little more than two years under Charles Patterson, who recently retired after 23 years.

Before joining the local health district, Cook held positions as the health commissioner in Madison County and, from 2014 to 2016, was chief executive officer of the Rocking Horse Community Health Center. Previously, he held several positions with the Miami County Health District, including health commissioner and director of emergency preparedness and response.

His experience as a health commissioner in two nearby counties required the same basic skillset as what he now brings to Clark County, but every community is different – and has different challenges, he says.

Chris Cook discusses outreach strategies with Dorline Lucien, Haitian-Creole interpreter at the Clark County Health Department. “The core and the foundation of public health is the same, but the surgical difference between counties is significant,” he says.

Local shifts include changing medical conditions, a growing immigrant population, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered views of public health.

“We’ve got to stay nimble and quick and pivot,” he says.

When public health systems are doing their jobs, they are largely invisible, Cook says. Some people have lost their trust in public health, and he wants to rebuild that, making sure they know that their public health system is the best source of accurate information.

As health commissioner, Cook wants to revisit foundational public health efforts and create programs that support healthy behaviors. Personal health choices impact the community, too, and Cook wants all residents to have a chance to live long and healthy lives.

Cook was hired as Clark County’s assistant health commissioner in 2021 with the understanding that Patterson would be stepping aside within a couple of years. 

“We got really lucky that someone of his high moral and ethical standards was available to come in and lead this team,” says Patterson, who will appear on the March 19 primary ballot as a Republican candidate for the Clark County Commission.

Chris Cook, outside the Clark County Health Department.Patterson says that Cook has the ability to take what has already been built at the health department and make it better. He also has been able to hit the ground running because of the contacts he has cultivated throughout the community with elected officials, social service organizations, nonprofit groups, and others.

“He’s just a step ahead because of the relationships he already has,” Patterson says, who also points to Cook’s previous positions as a health commissioner and at Rocking Horse.

Cook says his experience at Rocking Horse gave him a more full view of the public health system in Clark County, which includes not only hospitals but also urgent care facilities, mental health, and more. It also taught him the importance of investing in staff – something that Patterson knew as well, Cook says. The Clark County Combined Health District has about 100 employees.

“People are what make your organization effective and personable,” Cook says.

The Kenton Ridge High School graduate credits an English teacher there for putting him “on a path to success in college.” His path to public health was circuitous. He started out studying chemical engineering at the University of Dayton before changing his major several times and making his way to Wright State University.

He eventually determined that he wanted to combine science and serving and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in environmental health and a master’s in public health.

Holding the position of health commissioner in his home county, in the place where his twin 13-year-old daughters are being raised, is meaningful. Cook not only is embedded here, but he is also invested in the community. Cook is where he wants to be.

“It’s special,” Cook says. “Not a lot of people get this opportunity.”

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Read more articles by Diane Erwin.

Diane Erwin is a freelance writer and former reporter for the Springfield News-Sun. A graduate of Ohio State University, her articles have appeared in a number of publications in Springfield and Dayton. In addition to her journalism background, she has worked in marketing and written copy for businesses throughout the country. In her spare time, she likes to read, dream about Schuler’s donuts, and travel near and far with her husband and two children.