On Friday, the first working day of the new year, Deepa Joseph was moving her belongings into her new office at the Milford Health Department.

Joseph had been acting health director since Dr. Andrew Dennis McBride retired from his post as the head of the city’s health department. Mayor Ben Blake announced this week that she had been chosen as the new health director.

“I’m so excited,” said Joseph. “I’m thrilled to be able to work in this new position. I’m a pretty community-minded person, and I’m excited to serve Milford in this way.”

Not only has Deepa, 37, been part of the city’s health department for 11 years, her husband, Dr. Joby Joseph is a local dentist and the couple is raising their two young children — ages 2 an 4 — in Milford.

She first came to Milford as the emergency preparedness coordinator, then was named community health coordinator, then deputy director of public health, then acting director, and now health director.

“Deepa is a leader in the field of public health — locally, statewide and nationally,” Blake said in announcing her appointment. “She's a team builder who has helped the department transform into a world class health agency. But what is most impressive about Deepa is her deep devotion to our community and her genuine compassion for the people with whom she interacts.”

Joseph attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's degree in public health.

She originally intended to study pre-med but her senior year in college she took a public health course and loved the field.

“I felt like I could accomplish what I wanted with that degree,” she said, explaining that in school she focused on maternal and child health, and then in graduate school was exposed to myriad public health issues, from environmental health to emergency preparedness.

Milford’s health department provides a range of city services, from enforcing the city’s blight ordinance, monitoring restaurants to make sure they meet health department standards to addressing housing issues, school health, elderly issues including hoarding, emergency preparedness, and more.

“Public health impacts so many aspects of our lives that people don’t realize,” Joseph said. “I say to the others that if we’re doing our job well, residents will never know we’re here.”

In her new position, she oversees a staff of about 35 people, including school nurses, sanitarians, clerical employees, emergency preparedness staff and a school hygienist. She said Milford’s health department has “a great staff.”

Selection process

Joseph was chosen from 11 applicants for the department head position. Four of those applicants were interviewed by a selection panel, which included City Attorney Jon Berchem, Human Resources Director Tania Barnes, School Supt. Dr. Elizabeth Feser, Board of Health Chairwoman Dr. Constance Young, Board of Health member Holly Mulrenan, former Director of Nursing for the City of Milford Joan Cagginello and the City of Norwalk Health Director Timothy Callahan.

Following the interviews before the panel, two finalists were referred to the mayor for a second interview.

“Joseph distinguished herself as our first choice based upon her in-depth work experience as well as her strong commitment to the City of Milford,” Blake said.

Dr. McBride

Joseph’s predecessor, Dr. McBride, became Milford's health director in 2002, replacing Dr. Bob England, at a time when West Nile virus was making headlines and communities were rallying to protect their residents from threats of bio-terrorism.

Over the years in the field, McBride became an authority on a range of issues, from AIDS education and prevention, to lead poisoning and environmental issues.

McBride also brought a bit of national fame to the city as the son of Ruth McBride, the woman featured in “The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to his White Mother.” The book was written by McBride's brother, James McBride, and has become a literary staple in many high schools and colleges.

McBride announced his plans to retire several months ago and the city started actively looking for his replacement in October.

Mayor Blake praised McBride for his work here as the city started its replacement search in October.

“Dr. McBride's retirement in January will be a huge loss; he leaves behind a remarkable legacy and sets an extraordinarily high bar for what is expected of future health directors,” Blake said. “Dr. McBride has been a pioneer in the field of public health and, over the past 12 years, he has helped transform Milford's Health Department into the state's premier public health agency.”

Going forward

As the new health director, Joseph has some goals outlined already.

People sometimes come into the department looking for information about chronic illnesses, and she would like to have more information readily available to hand out. She would also like to spread the word about the programs and services the department offers.

For example, it may seem minor, she said, but the department offers tick testing for residents who are bitten.

“If a resident is bitten by a tick, they can bring it in and we’ll send it out for testing” to determine if it carries Lyme disease, she said.

She also wants to pursue accreditation with the Public Health Accreditation Board, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving and protecting the health of the public by advancing the quality and performance of tribal, state, local, and territorial public health departments,” according to the organization’s web site.

The public health field is starting to move toward accrediting health departments, and Joseph thinks going through the rigorous process will ensure the department is operating efficiently and doing all it can to meet the community’s needs.

“The process causes departments to evaluate what they’re doing,” she said.

Accreditation also may lead to more grand funding opportunities, something Deepa has pursued during her years with Milford’s health department.

She officially becomes health director Monday, Jan. 5.