INDIANAPOLIS — Dr. William VanNess didn’t have to wait long before executing his duties as Indiana’s new top public health officer.
On his first day of work two weeks ago, he found out that Gov. Mike Pence had been so busy campaigning last fall that he’d forgotten to get his annual flu vaccine.
The governor asked if he could get a flu shot the following week. VanNess’ reply: “I said ‘No. You’re getting one tomorrow.”
And Pence did — in front of news cameras at a press conference called by the governor to urge other Hoosiers to get vaccinated as well.
VanNess, a retired family physician and former head of a 173-bed community hospital in Anderson, doubts all the advice he’ll dole out as Indiana’s health commissioner will be followed so quickly. But he does feel a sense of urgency about the public’s health.
In the week that Pence got his vaccine, the state health department reported 17 deaths from flu-related illnesses. As of Monday, the total number of flu deaths this season had climbed to 43 — making it the deadliest flu season in five years.
Although the Centers for Disease Control reported Monday that there are some signs that the flu may be leveling off nationwide, VanNess said Indiana is still in the grips of a flu epidemic. So he continues to push the message: It’s not too late to get that flu vaccine.
“True influenza is a really harsh disease,” said VanNess. “It’s a disease you do not want to get.”
So how many Hoosiers haven’t been vaccinated against the flu? That’s a question that VanNess can’t answer.
Indiana has an electronic database of immunization records for children and adults, known as CHIRP (Children and Hoosiers Immunization Registry).
But it’s voluntary; health care providers who administer vaccines — for the flu and a wide range of other diseases like polio, mumps or measles — aren’t required to enter that information into CHIRP.
VanNess strongly supports legislation, authored by Republican state Sen. Pat Miller of Indianapolis, that would make vaccination reporting mandatory. It would give state public health officials the information they need when they’re tracking disease outbreaks. But it would also give more people quicker access to their immunization records and those of their children.
“We trying to get into the 21st century as a state organization,” said VanNess, noting the millions of birth and death records dating back to 1900 that are still on paper and stored at the state health department.
Digitizing mountains of health records is just one task that VanNess faces as he takes over the Indiana State Department of Health. As health commissioner, it’s his job to make sure essential public health services are being provided in every county. But it’s also his job to promote better public health.
That may be the toughest challenge.
“The state of Indiana is not very healthy,” VanNess said. “Thirty percent [of Indiana residents] are obese; 25.6 percent smoke; 10.2 percent are diabetic; 29 percent have a total sedentary lifestyle. We’ve got to see what we can do to motivate people to have healthier lifestyles.”
VanNess said the process of figuring that out involves some of what he learned from his late father, a small-town doctor who made house calls, delivered babies, performed surgeries, provided emergency care — and anything else a small town doctor was called to do.
“I saw the dedication he had and how he always put patients first,” VanNess said. “And that’s my goal here.”