Alum Is Brookline’s New Health Director
After guiding the pandemic response as the director of the Norwood Health Department, Sigalle Reiss (SPH ’05) will lead the Department of Public Health and Human Services in Brookline, Mass.
Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Sigalle Reiss (SPH’05) isn’t leaving the field like many local health department staff nationwide. The former Norwood Health Department director resigned for a new local health opportunity—Director of Public Health and Human Services in the Town of Brookline.
Reiss takes the helm in Brookline after 15 years in Norwood where she grew the department’s size, secured substantial federal, state and local grants over the years, and led the town’s pandemic response that became very local, very early in Norwood.
Reiss says March 6, 2020 is a day she’ll never forget when she looks back on COVID-19. It was a Friday night, and she was on her way to a friend’s surprise birthday party when she got a call to head into work. There was a case in Norwood that had exposed a large number of public officials, including Norwood Town Manager Tony Mazzucco, who a few days later would test positive for COVID-19, and had many close contacts to track down.
“It was so new. We had no idea what it meant,” Reiss says, describing how Norwood town staff came together to manage the infectious disease response, which would be identified as a pandemic a few days later. “It was just a whirlwind and an amazing experience and terrifying. All those things rolled into one.”
Reiss says it’s not so much a single pandemic story she will remember, but how events of the past two years have shined a light on public health, leading to much-needed workforce expansion. And, Reiss said, she hopes long-term support of the field.
“It’s awful as a world that we have to go through this. I think one positive is that people understand public health, its role and how valuable it is.”
Brookline is a larger, well-resourced community known for doing cutting-edge public health work, which Reiss says it what attracted her to the position. For example, Reiss says the Town passed a bylaw prohibiting anyone born after January 1, 2000 from ever being able to purchase tobacco or nicotine products in Brookline. It’s believed to be the first regulation of its kind to phase out tobacco for generations going forward.
Reiss says she’s approaching her start in Brookline by introducing herself to community partners to establish the relationships she knows she’ll need to be effective.
“I think there is an immense amount of power in local health for good reason, because it is to protect the public health of the community or individuals depending on the circumstances,” Reiss says, going on to explain how she thinks that often means something different depending upon the community. “And just like any enforcement laws, whether we’re talking public health or public safety, it’s really the community that decides what powers the entity has, and that the laws that govern those actions are dictated by the constituents. And we always have to remember that.”
To put it simply, Reiss references Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
As she begins to settle into her role in Brookline, Reiss said it’s important to be out in the community to experience firsthand the issues she weighs in on—from a site plan review to a noise complaint—so she can adequately address them. Reiss expects to explore accreditation for the department, a voluntary program for state and local public health departments that meet rigorous quality standards and have plans to continuously improve. Additionally, she’s interested in examining data on the interaction between human services and public safety, domestic violence, mental health, and substance use.
“Local public health needs to understand their community and what makes it tick in order to have effective policy and program implementation,” says Reiss, who has stuck with local public health for more than 20 years because of the dedicated and dynamic professionals in the field, and the support she has gotten in the communities where she works.
“I like that no day is the same. Just today I transitioned from lifting the mask mandate—policy work—to an artificial turf town meeting article to a hearing on housing code violations. I love the diverse array of topics I get to be involved in.”
Alan Balsam, adjunct associate professor of community health sciences, was Brookline’s health director for 21 years, and was elated when he heard Reiss was hired.
“She is an outstanding public health leader and will fit well in Brookline,” Balsam wrote in an email. “I am so proud to see so many of my/our former students doing well and making a difference in these difficult times.”