Dr. Gary Voccio’s latest ‘Voccio Viewpoint’ from Friday, Aug. 28.
By Natalie Simms
When Dr. Gary Voccio accepted the position as Health Director for the Northwest Georgia Public Health District in January, he didn’t quite imagine a global pandemic would consume his days. After retiring with more than 30 years in private practice at Harbin Clinic last December, Voccio is continuing to work a long and busy schedule as he oversees the Public Health response to the COVID-19 crisis in 10 Northwest Georgia counties.
“I was really only retired one week,” says Voccio. “I had decided I would retire at Harbin Clinic after I turned 65. I had heard that the Public Health directorship had opened up and thought, ‘I am still in good health’ and really didn’t know what I was going to do in retirement since I don’t have many hobbies. I still enjoy medicine and read a lot of medical literature…so I decided to apply for the job.
“After interviewing locally and at the state level, I didn’t know I got the position until the week before I was to start. But it has been rewarding.”
While practicing pulmonary and critical care medicine, he served as a Tuberculosis consultant with NWGA Public Health and worked with several public health nurses a staff. In fact, Voccio first moved to Rome to work in public health at the TB hospital at the Battey Campus before joining Harbin Clinic.
“Since I had worked with public health all during my career, it really made it easy to transition. I knew the people already. It’s nice to know great people are working with you,” he says.
As he started his new role, Voccio was planning to undertake the statewide initiative of identifying chronic health diseases within the health district and seeing if there were any initiatives that could be put into place to help improve each situation.
“We were looking at chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and Hepatitis A, which is still an epidemic in Northwest Georgia. I was actually working on lectures to give to local Family Practice residents at Floyd on Hepatitis A when COVID-19 broke out…we quickly had to change directions and use our resources for it,” he says.
“Right now, it is all-hands-on-deck…everyone is working hard, lots of long hours. I start my workday arriving at the office between 6:30 and 7 a.m. and I leave after 5 p.m., staying busy making calls, emails, keep up with all the medical data. But it’s not nearly as long as the 70 to 80 hours a week I did when on call in private practice.
“We really have a remarkable staff of epidemiologists and nurse managers…this virus has taken the world in a new direction and it will for a long time, we don’t know when it will end.”
Aside from staying as up-to-date as possible on medical data and information on COVID, Voccio spends a lot of time educating the public. From weekly ‘Voccio Viewpoint’ videos to speaking at service clubs or attending various government meeting, he has become the local face of the pandemic.
“I am amazed at all the information I have to give out and i’ts all welcome. I really enjoy the interaction with the local community and like hearing other sides of the story of this pandemic,” says Voccio. “We have a tremendous medical community here and very well-educated business folks, too…just a remarkable intellect.
“I can’t bluff the answers…they are very smart. So, I really stay on top of the medical information and literature out there because everybody else is as well.”
Voccio says he is just as busy now as he was at the beginning of the pandemic but trends are moving in the right direction.
“Over the past couple of weeks, testing is down and the number of positive results is down so Georgia is doing better. But unless a vaccine works well, we will still see small breakouts in the community for the time to come,” he says.
“We’ve been taking care of the hot spots. I think we can reduce the number of COVID cases but it won’t ever be zero. By quarantining those exposed and wearing masks, especially when in large groups, that will help keep numbers down.”
In the meantime, Public Health is now getting flu vaccines ready. Voccio is hopeful this year’s flu season will not be severe.
“We haven’t gotten any current info on flu yet from the CDC but we are getting vaccines ready. I am hopeful that with COVID and all the mitigation we are doing like extra handwashing, wearing masks and social distancing will help flu not be as bad. But flu is serious, lot of people die of flu, too,” he says.
“But we have got to live as normal life as we can. Getting the kids back to school and folks back to work is important for our society and economy…we just have to live as normal as we deal with the (COVID) virus.”