With more than 15 years of experience, Chantell Reed, the Multnomah County Health Department’s new interim deputy director of operations, is no stranger to health systems. Before coming to Multnomah County in August 2022 to serve as the deputy director of public health, Reed was the deputy director of health care operations for the City of New Orleans. There, she helped lead the department through a cyber-attack, the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple emergency responses.
But Reed did not choose a career in public health. It chose her, she says, starting the day she was born.
It would be many years before Reed would return to public health, a career path she never imagined for herself when she started taking business classes at Northwood University in Texas, where she received her bachelor’s degree in business and marketing in 2001.
“I thought I would produce widgets. I never thought I would be in healthcare, but it’s actually perfect,” she said. “I always wanted to help people and healthcare gave me that opportunity.”
Reed developed her business skills through both education and experience. Reed started her career working in a casino system as a regulatory compliance officer. Reed recalls working in the casino before and after Hurricane Katrina, which gave her experiences that help her contextualize her work today regarding social determinants of health and the impacts of intergenerational poverty.
“Before Katrina, you would see all types of people,” she said. “After Katrina, I saw people losing money that was meant to rebuild their homes. It was the promise of winning this money that some of them had never had access to in their lives.”
In 1997, Reed and her mom co-founded a human resources and event solutions consulting firm. Little did Reed know that the things she learned selling T-shirts could be applied to her role within healthcare operations during the City of New Orleans’ COVID-19 response. “When I opened up test sites, I applied what we did, merchandising for concerts, to test sites and securing COVID supplies,” she says.
Reed remarks that some people may believe that her business perspective does not always merge with a public health approach. But, she says, “you must understand the tenets of a business to apply them. You must sit in a seat of understanding the road through poverty to help people climb out of that. I aim to find the balance of both.”
In 2007, Reed decided she wanted to enter the healthcare industry. Using the compliance officer skills she already had, she started as an internal control manager for Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) Greater New Orleans, working with a team of medical data specialists.
Reed worked at an expanded model of PACE until 2018. It was during these formative years that Reed decided that public health was her passion and decided to go back to school to receive her master’s degree in healthcare management from the University of New Orleans. Reed is currently working on her doctoral degree in leadership, advocacy and equity from Tulane University.
In 2018, Reed became the deputy director of the New Orleans Health Department. Fast forward to February 2020. The city had just recovered from a cyber-attack and was told by Homeland Security that the risk of threats was low. Homeland Security also gave the green light for Carnival, a two-week period during which more than a million people visit New Orleans and city functions come to a halt, replaced by parades, balls and festivals. The economic impact of the celebration season is just as significant, with revenues averaging over $1 billion for the city.
The 2020 Carnival would go on to become an unwitting super-spreader event in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, Mardi Gras parades were canceled for the first time since the year Reed was born.
“It was like a light switch. People are dancing in the streets. The following week, the city is shut down. The next week, my aunt is in the hospital. She's having this respiratory issue. Long story short, you already know what happens. It’s COVID,” Reed recounts.
“That was when my director came to me and told me, ‘Alright, you're covering the health department. Public Health, Health Department, it’s all you.’”
Although Reed might have fallen into public health, her interest and enthusiasm for the social determinants of health keeps her moving forward.
“I feel like I was made for social determinants of health,” she said. “I’m a little Black girl who grew up in New Orleans and now can bring my data mind from the business training I've received to a population health perspective. I can look at health from a data-driven perspective and ask, ‘How does this reach broader populations to make a definitive impact?’”
In addition to her passion for public health, Reed also considers herself environmentally conscious. Part of the reason she moved to Oregon was Multnomah County’s ongoing sustainability work. Back in New Orleans, when she wasn’t fielding calls from the White House to set up COVID-19 testing sites, Reed created the Krewe of Harmonia, a group of diverse women that organize parades and parties to celebrate Carnival. Reed’s krewe was founded on the principles of environmentalism and sustainability. The first thing they addressed: the abundance of plastic beads that are thrown into crowds during Carnival parades.
“The beads are wasteful. You throw them and they land on the street and people don’t want them. It's money down the drain. Literally down the drain. They clog up our drainage systems. And what is New Orleans known for? Flooding.”
Reed will be attending the 2023 Carnival with her krewe loading parade-goers with loads of biodegradable beads and other sustainable tokens.
When she is not leading Carnival parades or responding to health crises, Reed can be found with her two teenage sons, Cameron and Sam, enjoying the Oregon mountains or curled up reading a good period piece.
Reed assumed her new role as the County Health Department’s interim deputy director of operations on Feb. 6, 2023. She steps into the position vacated by Valdez Bravo, who was appointed as the Health Department’s interim director.
“Chantell's talents are deep and wide, with her rich experience in responsive recovery emergency management. She is going to be a tremendous boon to the Multnomah County Health Department,” said Interim Director Bravo. “We did a boil water drill last week and Chantell was there telling us that she went through eight water boils just last year.”
Reed says she has four main goals she hopes to achieve in the position: improve public health infrastructure; gain accreditation for the department to provide a framework for standardization and ensure the needs of the community are being met with evidenced-based practices; become No. 1 in the Oregon on the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps list (Multnomah County is currently No. 6); and have the department win the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Award.
When asked if her goals seem too lofty, Reed is unfazed.
“They’ve got to be lofty, because then if they ain’t lofty, what are you doing?”