Community health assessment highlights concerns, progress in region


United Way of the Laurel Highlands

The list of culprits impacting regional community health is familiar -- substance abuse, obesity and childhood development are on it. 

Results from the latest Community Health Needs Assessment, however, included a new line item: violence, abuse and safety. 

"Violence kept popping up," Lee Ann Lambdin said. She works for Stratasan, a Tennessee-based health care data and analytics company that helped facilitate the assessment, which happens every three years. 

The survey was organized by Conemaugh Health System, 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health, 1889 Foundation and the United Way of the Laurel Highlands. The most recent results were reviewed by about 100 health care and human services professionals Aug. 9 during a summit at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. 

Professionals from several agencies provided updates during the five-hour summit, which culminated in a brainstorming session on how to address what the survey, conducted in Cambria and Somerset counties, found to be the top health issues. 

The top seven concerns are substance abuse, obesity, mental health, access to health care, jobs/education, violence/abuse/safety and childhood development. 

"These are generational problems," Conemaugh Health System CEO Bill Caldwell said in his opening remarks. "They won't change overnight. They will take years in some instances." 

In the background of every presentation was COVID-19 -- a nemesis that continues to be a nuisance in mostly all aspects of life. 

United Way President and CEO Karen Struble Myers talked about the organization's work in early childhood development. She noted that some 2-year-olds -- children born during the pandemic's start -- have yet to have significant contact with their peers. 

This is a cause of concern for emotional and social development. 

"Can these children play well in groups? Can they share?" she said. She talked about an initiative United Way is a part of with the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, 1889 Foundation, 1889 Jefferson Center and Lee Initiatives as part of the Health and Wellness Capture Team through Vision Together.

"We are guided by a whole childhood approach to healthy development," she said. 

A report from Flood City Youth Fitness Academy highlighted a growing program geared to give Johnstown's youth a safe place to learn, play and eat. 

"We are touching children at a very grassroots level," Jeffrey Wilson, representing the academy, said. The agency has buses that pick children up for programming, including tutoring in technology and music. The academy serves up to 130 kids a day. 

"These children are affected a little bit differently," he said of the challenges faced by the mostly urban children served. 

Experts on substance abuse from both counties provided an update.

In Somerset County, the No. 1 drug of choice has changed to marijuana, with meth a close second, according to Sarah Bittner, from the Somerset County Single County Authority. Since 2019, 4,000 students have participated in evidence-based programming to address addiction problems, she noted. 

Fred Oliveros, from the Cambria County Single County Authority, reported that during the last fiscal year there were 83 lives saved with the overdose reversal drug Narcan. There are 64 organizations, many of them police forces, that his agency provides with free Narcan. 

"We are very proud of that," he said of the saved lives. 

Overall mortality concerns in the region are familiar: heart disease, cancer and COVID. Obesity was high on mostly every list. 

Jeannine McMillan, from the 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health, emphasized that many of these preventable diseases are affected by social determinants of health and contribute to the County Health Rankings, compiled on an annual basis.

Progress takes time, the officials said. 

"Public health issues are evolutionary," Lambdin said about the obesity problem. She noted that it took experts several decades to grasp its severity. "They don't happen overnight." 

The pandemic forced some of these concerns to the background; however, survey results indicate they have not gone away. 

Lambdin outlined several pages of statistics gained from survey results that the group will use to hone a response in coming months. 

Sue Mann, president of the 1889 Foundation, said part of the next step is collaboration among agencies with the goal of a healthier community. That work has already begun via collaborations and committees focused on better health. 

"Progress will continue to be made," she said.