Courier Staff Writer
Wapello County has been chasing the health train for years, said Lynelle Diers, but the county is the 94th healthiest county in the state out of 99 counties.
At the Wapello County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday morning, Diers, the Wapello County Public Health clinical director, said Joel Spoonheim, Healthways manager of community programs who came to Ottumwa’s October site visit, has explained why communities need to internalize the Blue Zones process and why it’s so important.
The Blue Zones Project is a component of Gov. Terry Branstad’s Healthiest State Initiative to make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation by 2016.
Since the 1990s, Americans have been getting heavier and heavier, Diers said, manifesting itself in increased rates of heart attacks, strokes and diabetes.
“We’re going to start outliving our children. We need to do something,” she said. “It’s not about blaming mom and dad or grandma and grandpa. We need to look at the big picture, at society.”
Diers said Ottumwa needs to work on preventive care instead of waiting until someone becomes ill to try to fix the problem.
“What can we do now to make sure a person does not have a heart attack in 20 years?” she said. “We need to get ahead of this train. We’ve been chasing it for years.”
The Blue Zones project outlines little things people can do to increase their wellness. Diers has emphasized from the beginning that it’s not about forcing people to get a gym membership but about tweaking areas of their lives that will improve their health and wellness.
Diers noted that in the year after the Iowa Legislature passed the Iowa Smokefree Air Act banning smoking from restaurants and bars that serve food, the state saw an 18 percent reduction in hospital admissions, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The Blue Zones process includes changing workplace attitudes as well, she said, which is key because most people spend the majority of their time at work.
“If you’re happy at work, your longevity increases,” she said. “But if you’re miserable, statistics show that it does affect your health.”
Ottumwa’s Blue Zones committees are still meeting and working on a budget, Diers said. If the city is chosen as a demonstration site in January, Healthways will pay for three full-time positions, while Ottumwa will be expected to provide for three other full-time positions as well as office space.
“But if we’re not selected, we would still like to become certified,” Diers said.
Supervisor Greg Kenning was concerned that Blue Zones officials would ask Ottumwa to do things the city wasn’t prepared to do.
“I was surprised by some of the questions we were asked,” Kenning said of Ottumwa’s April site visit. “I got the feeling that they were looking for a group that had already achieved results in this area.”
One of the questions he said city officials were asked was how many fast-food restaurants the city had closed.
“I saw [Ottumwa City Administrator] Joe Helfenberger look aghast,” Kenning said. “We don’t close businesses.”
But since then, Diers said, Blue Zones officials have had to change some of their guidelines and requirements. They would not ask communities to close fast-food restaurants now, she said.
“People still have to have the choice,” Kenning said.
Wapello County Public Health also received a two-year, $88,000 per year Community Transformation Grant from the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The grant’s program director, Joni Elder, has already done two nutritional assessments of local restaurants and vending machine assessments in the county. Wapello County’s vending machine companies now fill the machines with nearly one-third healthy food, Diers said. Elder has also begun walkability and bikeability assessments of the community.
“We’re very fragmented in this community,” Diers said. “We need to start working together. We need to pool our resources because right now we all work in our silos.”
Diers, Helfenberger and Indian Hills’ Rural Health Education Partnership Chairwoman Lori Reeves will travel to Mason City on Friday for the community’s kickoff event. Mason City was one of the first four communities designated as demonstration sites in May.
In other business, the supervisors approved several amendments to the county’s 2012-13 budget, including bonding for $500,000 for the new communications towers. While the E911 Board is paying for the new towers, Supervisor Steve Siegel said since the board is unable to bond for a project, the county will do so and then the board will reimburse them for the cost.
The footings for the towers will be installed in December so that crews can begin constructing them over the winter. Once they are up, Supervisor Jerry Parker said antennas can be attached and the system will likely be ready by spring.