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Dr. John Hellerstedt, the Texas Department of State Health Services commissioner who helmed the state’s public health response during the COVID-19 pandemic, is retiring at the end of the month, state officials announced Thursday. Hellerstedt has worked for the state for 14 years, serving as the leader of the health department since 2016.
“He is credited for spearheading the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cecile Erwin Young, the Texas Health and Human Services executive commissioner, wrote in a news release.
Hellerstedt did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday afternoon, but he told agency staff of his plans in an email in early August and said he looks forward to “spending more time with my wife and eight (soon to be eleven!) grandchildren and perhaps do some traveling.”
He wrote that he is retiring “with a heavy heart and genuinely mixed emotions.”
“I knew from the outset that the DSHS team was an amazing group of people who carry out a complex and vital mission,” Hellerstedt wrote to the staff. “The experience of our success in the face of the global pandemic only redoubled my admiration.”
Hellerstedt’s interim replacement will be Dr. Jennifer Shuford, the chief state epidemiologist at the health agency. Shuford was also credited with supporting the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to make public health decisions. Shuford joined DSHS in 2017 after practicing as an infectious disease physician in Austin.
Shuford will take over leadership of DSHS on Oct. 1 after Hellerstedt’s retirement from state service.
“Dr. Shuford’s passion for service, extensive experience and knowledge in public health will serve us well as she steps into this role,” Young said in the statement. “I’m confident she will successfully lead DSHS through this transitional time.”
Shuford is also a member of the Travis County Medical Society and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
The Texas Department of State Health Services is the governmental agency that oversees public health operations, policies and plans in Texas.
Headquartered in Austin with about 100 offices throughout the state, DSHS has a staff of more than 3,500 employees. Its budget is typically close to $2 billion but ballooned to $7.8 billion during the current two-year state budget cycle due to pandemic costs, with most of that funded by the federal government. The agency is under the auspices of Texas Health and Human Services.
DSHS also serves as the primary public health agency in some 164 Texas counties.
The agency supports and oversees immunization services, communicable disease investigation and reporting and public health emergency preparedness and response. DSHS is also responsible for birth and death registration, overseeing the state’s emergency medical service system and trauma registries.
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