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How New Hanover County is prioritizing its health goals for the next decade

Healthy runner

NC Healthy 2030 is a ten-year plan that maps out 21 key public health indicators and goals for the state. Each county, however, has to establish which local issues are most important — and figure out how to tackle them.

Poverty, drug use, HIV, school suspensions, housing -- the list of public health indicators is long. While North Carolina has overall goals for each of these issues, they tend to look different from county to county -- and no county has limitless resources to tackle every problem.

So, counties have to prioritize, based on studies over the past few years.

“So for us, for the 2019 community health assessment that we found that we're going to be strategically planning for our chronic disease or chronic diseases across the board in the drivers of those both environmental as well as other factors and also substance and drug misuse,” according to David Howard, New Hanover County’s public health director.

Howard said there’s also a county priority that isn’t one of the state’s 21 indicators, but one that’s familiar to almost everyone in the Cape Fear region.

“One of the priorities that if we popped up for us locally, which is not necessarily one that you see in the North Carolina 2030 is something you're familiar with, which is environmental health exposures stemming from GenX and PFAS in our river, in our water system in those concerns, and that's blossomed into some other environmental concerns as well. So just in the preservation of our natural environment as well,” Howard said.

In addition to refining local priorities, New Hanover County also has to figure out what the local problems look like -- what communities are most affected and who severe the issues really are. Then, they need to figure out what reasonable goals for improving those situations will look like -- and which community partners can best help move the needle.

To do that, the county is enlisting the help of Cape Fear Collective, a regional non-profit that specializes in data collection and analysis.

“Okay, well, the Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Institute of Medicine already has these 21 indicators through this Healthy NC 2030 report that they released in January of 2020,” said Nick Pylypiw, director of data science for Cape Fear Collective.

“What it doesn't really do is say, Okay, now, here's what this means for Pender County, here's what this means for Duplin, for New Hanover for Wilmington, as a city. So that's where we come in,” Pylypiw said.

Pilypiw’s team gathers data, broadly across all the indicators and also a deep dive into the indicators that are most relevant for New Hanover County, which include poverty, access to healthy food, and severe housing problems.

Data points might range from census information to where overdoses are reported, from property evaluations to school assignments. It’s all publicly available, but few organizations, including the local government, have the bandwidth to process it. That’s what Pilypiw’s team does at CFC, layering dozens of different data sets on top of each other to map out the problems in the county.

“At the end of the day, we're this translational layer of the data and we can kind of give the insight. But we can't --- We're trying to stay as much out of the policy realm as we can. So at that point, it's just like, here's what we think the situation is, here's where we think we are, where we're trending. And now it's up to you," Pylypiw said.

CFC expects the data and analysis will be made publicly available this summer -- and, based on that data, health goals tailored to the county’s specific issues. Moving forward, CFC plans to track progress towards these goals using a dashboard -- that’s expected to go online in the fall.

Below, the January 2020 Healthy NC report that will guide the state's health goals for the next decade.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.