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As health director for the Town of Essex, Lisa Fasulo has been helping keep the community safe and healthy during the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo by David Fasulo )
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Lisa Fasulo, the director of the Essex Health Department and a registered sanitarian, was following her own advice. She was maintaining social distancing with a reporter—in fact, extreme social distancing. The interview was done over the telephone. The conversation took place on a recent weekend. Lisa was sure she would be too busy during the week for an extended talk.
The coronavirus is, of course, a first in Lisa’s experience, but she has participated in training and planning drills for pandemic situations as a part of her work. Over the last month, she has been in regular contact with the Connecticut Department of Health.
“Everybody knew it was coming,” she says. “I’ve been emailing other heath directors, going 24/7 really.”
The state has encouraged people to stay home during this crisis, to help prevent the spread of the virus that could lead to overwhelmed hospitals. When you do have to go out to get food or other essentials, her advice is familiar but can’t be repeated enough: Maintain social distancing at the recommended six feet, wash hands often, and don’t touch your face.
In addition to the state’s order to close all non-essential businesses to the public, by week’s end, Lisa had issued her own advisory, recommending that private gatherings in Essex be limited to 10 people or less.
She worries about the community cohesion that is lost when people have to isolate themselves but understands that conditions may make that necessary. She is aware of the level of worry and uncertainty the pandemic has created and wants to reassure people.
“We have plans; very good plans,” she says.
The one thing she does not worry about is her role in the present crisis.
“I love my job, I love my community, I love my residents. I want to be here,” she says.
Lisa has a deputy, Don Mitchell, who works two days a week. Mitchell once was head of a larger unit, a health district as opposed to a heath department like Essex, but retired and then came back to work in the community part time. (A health district encompasses at least three communities.)
“He is absolutely terrific,” Lisa says.
Ordinarily the health department has an important but more routine list of chores, but “Now everything else is on the back burner,” Lisa says.
The department is responsible for areas including lead paint mitigation, water safety, septic systems, food safety, and all construction as it relates to environmental concerns. With new construction and additions, Lisa says contractors have to get the permission of her department even before they go to the building department.
Many houses in Essex, given the age of the housing stock, were built before lead paint regulations went into effect. Lisa doesn’t inspect houses but catches the lead paint problem when she inspects renovations and additions. If the paint isn’t flaking, she explains, it’s not considered a problem. If it is cracked and flaking, it must be dealt with by certified paint removal specialists.
Food safety means inspecting restaurants, coffee shops, markets—anyplace selling food. Lisa says informing the shops’ staff of the regulations is an ongoing project.
“They all want to serve good quality meals and we want to have a good relationship with them. I want them to call me when they need to,” she says. “It’s a constant process of reeducation.”
Even before the present pandemic situation, Lisa was educating the entire community about the various public health issues she deals with everyday.
“It might not be glamorous, but it is very important,” she explains.
She has set up tables at events like the Ivoryton Pumpkin Festival and the Safety Day the fire department had in the fall to let the community know about the work of the health department.
She has done hand-washing drills with at schools so children know how to wash thoroughly. She uses washable glow-dye, which will continue to shine anywhere the youngsters don’t get the required amount of soap and water.
Lisa first came to Essex in 2011 as the interim director of the health department before becoming the permanent administrator. She had her first challenge right away. She and Hurricane Irene arrived at the same time.
In addition to heading the Health Department, Lisa is also the town’s assistant director of emergency management, and in that capacity got a recent call at 4 o’clock in the morning about the fire that destroyed the kitchen of the Black Seal restaurant on Essex Main Street. Her particular concern was residents in the building next door who might have been affected by the blaze.
“We work with the fire chief and the ambulance service if they need assistance,” she says.
Lisa grew up in East Lyme and majored in biology at the University of Hartford. She worked in the field of biological research and testing, including 10 years at Pfizer. While at Pfizer she got a master’s degree in public health at the University of Connecticut.
“I wanted to do something with more public benefit,” she says of her decision to go into public health.
She and her husband Daniel, an assistant principal at East Lyme High School, live in Essex.
“We wanted to be on the shoreline,” she says.
The couple are avid boaters; they have a big sailboat for weekend trips to places like Block island, and a sailing dinghy. Lisa competes in races at Pettipaug Yacht Club during the summer.
As she looks forward to the next few weeks, Lisa recommends that people who get milder versions of COVID-19, as the data indicates most cases are, remain home and seek whatever advice they need from their doctors by telephone rather than going to the emergency room where there is greater chance of infection.
“There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, fears and anxieties but I know that we will get through this together,” she says.
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