DANVILLE — When Douglas Toole started working at the Vermilion County Health Department office as a part-time summer worker, he didn’t even have a place to fill out paperwork.
If he wanted a little space to work, he had to grab the corner of someone else’s desk.
The year was 1988.
Twenty-eight years later (2016), he was named to run the place. He’s administrator of the health department.
He has his own desk. Even his own office.
Toole had just finished his freshman year in the journalism program at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
“I came back over the summer to pay for next year’s (college) and work at a fast-food place and maybe another place,” Toole said.
He saw a help-wanted ad for someone to check sewage systems for the health department.
“It was (deciding) between delivering pizzas or working with environmental health,” he said.
Toole would respond to calls of sewage smell, knock on doors and pour dye in the toilet and find out if the dye had come out in a nearby creek or ditch. If so, it meant the system had failed.
He liked the work and did it for the next three summers.
One of the public-health administrators said he liked his work and said he was welcome to come back. But Toole had his eyes fixed on a job in journalism.
Toole sent out his resume to every place he could think of. No response.
“I was applying to daily papers, weekly papers. I offered to work in sales, and they wouldn’t interview me. They said, ‘Get some experience first.’
“I graduated in 1992. You could have thrown a dart at a map and there would have been a newspaper there.”
That’s not necessarily the case anymore.
He finally landed a part-time job as an evening correspondent for The News-Gazette while also working for the health department.
Toole continued as an N-G correspondent until 2016 when he was named administrator.
He said he misses newspaper work.
“Where I really notice it is around election time, because having sat through endless school board meetings, I knew those candidates,” he said. “I would do profile pieces and felt confident walking into the voting booth knowing who I would vote for.”
Now? Not so much.
Being a journalist also helped him overcome any fear he had of picking up the phone and talking to people.
Toole, who is 52, enjoys his job with the health department. It offers more job security than journalism. He’s surprised how far he’s come since that young kid who was checking for sewer leaks.
Toole began working with the department full time in 1992 and moved up the ranks, first as an investigator in the Environmental Health Division, specializing in solid-waste investigations, then director of Environmental Health, supervising the division for six years (2010-2016). He held that job until being named administrator.
“I’ve been able to work with three administrators before me who did amazing work and were great role models,” Toole said. “Also a great director of environmental health for many years, too. That helped to make the transition easier.”
As administrator, he said he never really feels he’s “off duty.”
“I hear other folks talking about going away for a couple of days and leaving their phone off. I can’t do that,” he said, adding he is always checking his emails, text messages and calls. “It’s an ongoing job.”
His phone number is on the health department website.
“It’s nothing to get a response from me on the weekends or early in the morning,” he said. “Nothing I’m doing now is ever done.”
There’s always something else to do.
But whenever he starts to feel overwhelmed, he realizes how collaborative the job is.
“Back in my inspector and supervisor days, I learned there’s a great network of people with similar jobs in other counties, and they’re happy to share information. Even as an inspector, I could call people in their counties and ask, ‘What should I be looking for?’”
The same collaboration happens between administrators of neighboring counties.
Toole said Champaign-Urbana Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde and her staff are especially helpful.
This past year has been challenging for all public health departments.
The Vermilion County department, which normally employs about two dozen employees, has added a half-dozen contract tracers as temporary employees due to the pandemic.
Toole called the coronavirus “aggressive.”
“We were lucky with our long-term-care and congregate-living facilities,” he said. “We are happy that the folks in charge of (those) places responded quickly when the virus was first making its rounds. They made some decisions that were not always popular … but they paid off.”
Now, the county is starting to see the virus move through those facilities and Danville Correctional Center as it has in other counties.
Family gatherings for the holidays played a role.
“It’s highly contagious and airborne,” Toole said. “It’s just hard to avoid.
“Death-wise it is nowhere near this with other influenzas. With other influenzas, most people don’t have to go to their doctor about it,” Toole said.
Toole disagrees with those who claim face masks don’t work.
“The masks are definitely helping,” he said. “It’s very difficult to read Facebook and people say the cloth masks aren’t doing anything. I hate to see that.”
The pandemic isn’t the only area the health department is focusing on.
VCHD has modified some of its programs to limit direct contact with the public. It still provides birth and death records, nutrition education and supplemental food vouchers to WIC clients, performs surveillance on other communicable diseases and provides other vaccinations. It has an emergency-response coordinator, inspects solid-waste sites, private wells, private sewage systems and food-service establishments.