Thursday, July 18, 2024

Cambridge’s chief public health officer, Claude Jacob, seen speaking as president of the National Association of County and City Health Officials in 2016, is leaving for a role in San Antonio.

Claude Jacob, who led the city’s public health department during an unprecedented pandemic that challenged public health leaders worldwide, is leaving his post as Cambridge chief public health officer July 1 to head the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Cambridge health department spokeswoman Susan Feinberg confirmed the move after San Antonio officials announced it Friday.

Jacob headed the Cambridge Public Health Department since 2007 and until Covid-19 changed the public health world, his signature achievement was shepherding the department to national accreditation in 2018. The effort took five years; when the Cambridge agency won the designation it was one of only four accredited health departments in the state – including the state and Boston health departments – and among 200 nationwide.

Jacob grew up in Haiti and as a youth he hoped to compete in the Olympics in track and field, according to a 2014 interview with him by the Boston Business Journal. He had to give up that dream when he broke his back in college, he told the newspaper.

Before his appointment in Cambridge, Jacob held leadership positions in Illinois and Baltimore public health agencies. He received a masters of public health degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and an undergraduate degree in sociology from the University of Illinois at -Urbana-Champaign.

Pandemic leadership

Under Jacob’s leadership here during the pandemic, Cambridge was the first community in the state to test all nursing home and assisted living residents and staff for Covid-19 regardless of whether they had symptoms. The city partnered with the Broad Institute of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to analyze test samples. The results showed that more than 200 residents were infected while only 24 cases had been reported, bringing attention to the problem of asymptomatic people transmitting the virus.

After the Cambridge pilot program, the state Department of Public Health followed suit, testing all residents and staff at long-term care facilities statewide, also in conjunction with the Broad Institute.

Cambridge also established a free Covid-19 testing program for residents, operating it seven days a week. More than 200,000 tests have been performed. More recently, the health department was frustrated when state officials made it clear that most local health agencies would not get the necessary supply of vaccine to establish local Covid-19 vaccination clinics for their residents.

The department has successfully vaccinated specific groups who have been disparately hurt in the pandemic or overlooked. It brought doses to seniors and disabled people living in public housing, homeless shelter residents and homebound residents.

Politics in health policy

In San Antonio, Jacob will take over a department where leadership has changed six times since 2019, according to news reports. A majority of residents in the health district are Hispanic, unlike Cambridge, where 60 percent of residents are white.

During the pandemic here, Jacob often had to walk a thin line between those who wanted stronger precautions, such as banning indoor restaurant dining, and those who wanted more reopening of the economy. Cambridge often adopted more stringent restrictions than the state and also mounted financial aid programs for businesses and tenants.