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State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry speaks during a press conference on the current state of the spread of coronavirus in Louisiana, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

Louisiana’s State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry was planning to retire earlier this year but decided to stick around to help out when COVID started breaking out in March.

Eight storms later, not to mention the pandemic, both of which required working seven days a week for months on end, Guidry decided to step down Thursday, the last day of 2020, after nearly a quarter century as the state official in charge of dealing with Louisiana’s health issues.

“I’m ready to have some R&R,” Guidry said Monday.

Travel is off the board for the time being because of pandemic restrictions. But he hopes to still see some patients on a part-time basis. “I don’t want to work full-time,” he said.

Dr. Joe Kanter will step into the role to replace Guidry. Kanter is also currently serving as interim secretary for the Office of Public Health, a post vacated earlier this year by Dr. Alex Billioux. The agency is searching for a permanent replacement for that role, which serves as the state’s top coronavirus response official.

Guidry has worked for the agency for more than 30 years, with 24 of those being state health officer – longer than anyone else had held the position. During the pandemic, he has been one of the most prominent public faces of the Gov. John Bel Edwards administration’s response to the coronavirus.

“As we prepare to close this extraordinary year, I am grateful that Dr. Guidry can retire knowing that we hold the COVID-19 vaccine — the first step toward ending the pandemic — in our hands. Though we will greatly miss his warmth and wisdom, we truly wish him all the best as he closes this chapter of his life,” Health Department Secretary Courtney Phillips said in a statement.

Guidry trained in pediatric medicine and taught physicians at the old LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center, the former charity hospital in north Baton Rouge, when he was offered a job with the state’s public health agency. Pediatrics is more than treating sick children. It requires a good deal of knowledge about vaccinations and new protocols that help children in need but also puts them on a path of good health throughout their life.

“Instead of helping patient by patient, public health involves helping four million at time,” Guidry said. He worked as a regional director in Lafayette from 1990 to 1996, then took the post of state health director.

“Thank God, I had this background because I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have a process to fall back on,” Guidry said.

During his tenure, Guidry had to deal with brain-eating amoebas, found in some bayous, that got into drinking water. He handled sanitation in restaurants, outbreaks of infectious diseases, and caring for hurricane evacuees. He oversaw problems with the state’s decaying drinking water infrastructure, arranging for a system of loans to help merge smaller systems with larger ones, thereby making the systems more economically viable.

“We have long to go, but I’m satisfied that we’re heading in the right direction,” Guidry said of the state’s drinking water problems.

Guidry said as bad as this year turned out to be, it wasn’t as bad as the 2005 hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. But, the lessons learned from that experience made the storms of 2020 easier to handle.

Prior to 2005, government’s response to hurricanes came after the event, for the most part, he said. When levees broke in New Orleans, the state all of a sudden had to start evacuating people from rising water after the storm had passed, and then find shelters, supplies and a way to care for them.

“Now, we plan in advance. We have to have assets on the ground and in position a lot earlier. It was a change in thinking,” Guidry said.

The 2020 pandemic required adjustments as evacuees couldn’t be put in large shelters. So, the state arranged for hotel rooms and were able to people relatively close to their damaged homes, Guidry said.

With Guidry’s departure, the state health department is doing some rearranging of personnel.

Interim secretary for the Office of Public Health Kanter, who will pick up the state health officer mantel, was previously the medical director for the state’s health Region One, in the greater New Orleans area. Dr. Shantel Hébert-Magee, a physician, health policy advisor and minority health strategist, will step into the role vacated by Kanter, overseeing Region One. She currently works for the Office of Public Health.

The agency also announced Dr. Sundee Winder will serve as interim director of the bureau of community preparedness, after Doris Brown retired as executive director. Stephen Russo, who earlier this year served as interim head of the Health Department, will fill a newly created role called director of legal, audit and regulatory affairs. He was previously executive counsel.

Sam Karlin of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.

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