Bastrop County established the county public health department in August, appointing Donna Nichols as the interim director. Since February, Nichols has led monthly public health task force meetings to determine the greatest health needs in Bastrop County.

Being a trusted source for information, increased health equity and more health accessibility have been discussed at the meetings as priorities for the new department.

Community Impact spoke with Nichols to learn more about the department’s work to address health needs across the county.

What is the current state of health care in Bastrop County?

[The] current state has to be compared against other localities. If we start comparing [Bastrop] to counties around us—in terms of Central Texas—the only county that ranks lower on most health indicators is Caldwell County. We know that we have a lot of work to do here.

It seems like there are two Bastrops: the more urban and the more rural parts of the county. What does that mean for health equity in Bastrop County?

A lot of our communities that are disproportionately affected—that are vulnerable, marginalized and at risk—are just a stone's throw away from our futuristic cyber industries that have been created by Elon Musk. So we've got two Bastrops as you said: the one where there is more progressive action happening and new residents coming in due to some of the industry that is here, ... but then there are those marginalized communities that are in the county that really exist in the shadows of this futuristic cyber industry that we have here.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest health challenges in the county?

If we just simply look at the leading causes of death in Bastrop County, we're talking about diseases like diabetes, cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, colorectal cancer or prostate cancer. One of the leading causes of death in the county is overdose and what is happening within the environment that is contributing to that. A lot of that is around recognizing how we can assure folks can live more healthfully in certain parts of our county because we know certain environmental threats are there.

The Bastrop County Public Health Task Force has been meeting monthly since February. What have been the main focuses of these meetings?

We actually did a priority-setting exercise with the task force, and the items that I just described came out through the task force members’ thoughts about what they felt the priorities were. .... That kind of information combined with our community discussion groups that we've been having along with some secondary data will be combined or at least reviewed so that we understand what's important and what's feasible for this county in terms of [what we will be] able to tackle first, second, third, fourth.

What’s in the future for the Bastrop County Public Health Department?

Public health in Bastrop County, I would say, is positioned well. It is certainly recognized as an element that was missing in the county when it comes to keeping the whole population well. And it's definitely needed. Anytime you have a health issue, where do you go to get the most credible source of information? What was lacking in this county was that credible source or that credible voice for health, and so now we have that opportunity in front of us.