SAN ANTONIO – With more than 20 years in public health, including his most recent stretch at the head of the Cambridge Public Health Department, Claude Jacob is well aware of the ins and outs of managing public health in a pandemic.
“I’m battle-tested, but contrary to popular belief, I did not have a full head of hair before COVID,” the new director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District told reporters during a Wednesday morning meet-and-greet.
Jacob started his new position on July 6, coming in as COVID-19 cases are once again on the rise in the Alamo City. It’s also more than a full year after his predecessor, Dawn Emerick, abruptly resigned, leading to a variety of people taking up temporary leadership roles amid a pandemic that put the department under its brightest-ever spotlight.
“It’s been quite a roller coaster ride, quite candidly, for the team,” Jacob said.
Emerick, who resigned in June 2020 after just five months on the job, had clashed with her predecessor, Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger. Ultimately, it was Bridger who delayed her own planned exit from the city in order to temporarily slip back into her old role as Metro Health director. Bridger later switched to only focusing on the city’s COVID-19 response while other top health officials oversaw the department’s other operations.
With Bridger finally departing her city job on Monday to begin working as a private consultant, Metro Health’s full range of responsibilities once again falls under one person -- Jacob.
“Again here to stabilize the enterprise,” he said Wednesday. “I applaud the stamina and the resilience of the team to get through the last 18 months. But let’s be clear. The party’s not over, so we remain on task and on message tied to COVID.”
Jacob’s approach to the pandemic doesn’t appear different from what city officials have already been saying. He stressed the need for vaccinations and noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s continued recommendation for unvaccinated people to continue wearing masks.
“Again, there’s no debate about wearing a seat belt or on wearing a bike helmet,” Jacob said. “So we want to make it the same norm for folks. The expectation’s to wear a mask. There should not be a stigma with wearing a mask. So although there is not a mandate, we are recommending that folks continue to mask up, especially if they are immunocompromised. So just be wise.”
A Metro Health spokesman later told KSAT via text that the health district did not have an official stance on masks for people who are already vaccinated, just unvaccinated people.
Public health has a wider purview than the pandemic, though, which Jacob noted.
“So we do want a position to talk about these other conditions like diabetes, like asthma, like violence. And so just know that we’re going to be bilingual of sorts in terms of the work of the department so that we can at least cover those bases,” Jacob said.
While the pandemic focused a brighter spotlight than ever before on Metro Health, Jacob says it’s a good problem to have.
“At the end of the day, COVID has ripped the veneer off of the covering of what we do as a governmental public health enterprise. It’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity, not to boast, but to demonstrate that we are here to assure the conditions where all can be healthy. So regardless of the ability to pay,” Jacob said.