The Coahoma County Health Center in Clarksdale, Miss., Thursday, October 20, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Instead of potentially closing, the Coahoma County Health Department is moving to a nicer, newer home.

The move to a building at the local hospital will preserve public health care in Clarksdale, the heart of the Mississippi Delta and a region with unique health needs. As health departments across the state struggle, the relocation is an example of what happens when local entities partner with the state to serve the community, said Jon Levingston, economic development director for Coahoma County.

The decades-old building was in need of multiple repairs, but it would be too expensive to renovate, and no other buildings in the area were suitable, according to a July 24 press release from Crossroads Economic Partnership, an organization tasked with increasing economic viability in Coahoma County.

“Simply by looking at it, one could tell it was an old building with multiple issues,” Levingston said. “The staff, I think, really wanted to be in a different facility where their patients felt more at ease.”

Coahoma County is not alone – some of the state’s county health departments are beyond repair. Former State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs in 2021 showed photos to lawmakers of county health departments with gaping holes in the walls, leaking ceilings, mold and dilapidated bathrooms, according to a New York Times article.  

The State Health Department was prepared to direct Coahoma County patients to nearby facilities. The closest health departments are miles away in Quitman, Tunica, Tallahatchie, Sunflower and Bolivar Counties. In an area where transportation can be a major challenge to health care access, keeping the health department in Clarksdale is a major win, Levingston said. 

In a statement emailed to Mississippi Today, State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney denied that the health department was going to close, though it’s unclear how it would have remained open. Edney said the agency was exploring other options, including consolidating with another county health department or deploying a mobile unit to Coahoma County. Levingston said his understanding was that the facility would have closed without another building.

Daniel Edney, M.D., is the State Health Officer. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The new space became available after Delta Health System, which has undergone financial stress in recent years, bought out its lease of the Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in April, and the county resumed its operation. Delta Health had leased the facility since February 2021. 

Together, the hospital’s board of trustees and Coahoma County Board of Supervisors offered the space to the health department.

“… It was an easy and natural decision for our board to offer to assist the State Department of Health,” said Bowen Flowers, president of the hospital board of trustees, in the press release. “The county health department needed to upgrade their space. We have the space and wanted to make it available to them, which our board voted unanimously to do.”

After relocation and a ribbon cutting, the health department will be located in the hospital’s adjacent medical office building, along with other health care offices connected to the hospital. 

While it’s relocating, the health department, which is usually open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays, will only be open on Fridays during the entire month of August, according to the state health department’s website. Once it’s complete, the health department will resume normal hours, and there are no plans to extend its hours in the future, according to Mississippi State Health Department spokesperson Liz Sharlot. 

Edney has spoken extensively about increasing health care services in the Delta, where he was raised, as well as the need for partnerships between local and state partners to ensure the vitality of county health services especially. Edney called the collaboration in Coahoma a “model” to follow in other communities. 

“These are the types of partnerships that are necessary to sustain excellent healthcare for all our citizens, especially in the rural areas of our state such as the Mississippi Delta region,” he said in the press release. 

Public health services are becoming even more essential as Mississippi’s health care infrastructure continues to crumble. Almost half of the state’s rural hospitals are at risk of closure, according to one report.

Though budget cuts imposed on the State Health Department in recent years have trickled down to reduced hours and services at county health departments, they still offer essential services, such as STI testing, vaccinations, diabetes and hypertension care, pap smears and pregnancy testing. 

Edney has prioritized increasing staffing, hours and services at county health departments statewide despite not receiving the funding he requested from the state Legislature this year.

“I can’t allow this to continue,” Edney previously told Mississippi Today. “I can’t allow counties not to have access to public health.”

Currently, Mississippi has 86 health departments and 82 counties — several counties have more than one, while others have none.

Levingston recalled reactions from Coahoma County Health Department employees when he showed them the new facility.

“They were just looking around with stunned looks on their faces because it was so clean and so nice,” he said. “One lady looked at me with tears in her eyes and whispered, ‘Do you think this could really be ours?’

“‘Absolutely,’ I said.”

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Devna Bose, a Neshoba County native, covers community health. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas.