Dr. Jennifer Dillaha was appointed director of the state Department of Health on Thursday.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson also named the department's chief of staff, Renee Mallory, interim secretary of health. She will serve in that role through the end of the year, until a new governor makes an appointment.
Mallory succeeds two men who resigned from the role to work for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Jose Romero, who led the state's response to COVID-19 for most of the pandemic, left last month. He had replaced Dr. Nathaniel Smith, who left in May 2020.
Historically, the head of the department that employs about 2,000 people has also served as Arkansas’ chief health officer. But the secretary role replaced the health officer role when Hutchinson reorganized the state’s government in 2019. The director reports to the secretary, and the secretary reports to the governor as a member of the governor’s cabinet, Dillaha said late Thursday.
Having two people fill the roles plays to the two women’s strengths, she said, and they officially start their new jobs after 5 p.m. Friday.
“Renee is a superb administrator, and my forte is in public health science, addressing the public health issues of the state,” Dillaha said. “So, with us working together, and we've worked together for years, we work together very well. I think it will be a win-win for both of us and for the state.”
Dillaha was recommended for the post by the Arkansas State Board of Health during an emergency meeting Thursday morning.
She joined the department in 2001 and was named chief medical officer last summer. That role was added to her two other roles. She has been medical director for immunizations since 2013 and medical director for outbreak response since 2019.
Dillaha said changes will be made within the department going forward, but what changes will be made hasn’t been decided yet. Whether she and Mallory will continue to fill their current roles in addition to the new ones is to be determined.
As director, Dillaha plans to reassess public health needs beyond responding to COVID-19, which has dominated the department's activities for the past two years. She said the state has other public health issues to address.
Dillaha has been with the department for more than 20 years and said she’s worked with many of its programs. “So I will be in a good position to provide an overview and learn what the issues are … so that we can make some priorities and address them because, obviously, the public health issues in Arkansas are bigger than just COVID.”
However, Dillaha said the pandemic highlighted some areas in need of improvement. For example, she said, the department has strengthened its database and immunization capabilities.
“I think we're in a better position to go forward with public health in the state because we are in some ways coming out stronger as a result of the pandemic than we were when we went into the pandemic,” she said.
Dillaha also said the pandemic has shaped her into a stronger leader and taught her more about emergency preparedness, which was an area she didn’t have a lot of experience in beforehand. “I have come to understand more in terms of how the state government works as well as who the partners for public health are around the state. So the whole pandemic, from my point of view, has brought about some strengths to Arkansas and to me, personally, as a public health professional,” she said.
Dillaha’s career includes stints as the state epidemiologist, special advisor for strategic initiatives, and as director of the Center for Health Advancement. She has specialty training in internal medicine and subspecialty training in infectious diseases and in geriatric medicine as well.
Mallory has been with the department for 33 years.
She began her career there as a nurse surveyor for Health Facility Services and was most recently deputy director for Public Health Programs.
In addition, Mallory was a past designee of the secretary on the Tobacco Settlement Commission and chaired the Arkansas State and Public School Employees Life and Health Insurance Board.
Dillaha said Mallory began her career as a nurse, then she came to work in the department’s hospital licensing program, proved herself to be “just a superb administrator” who gradually assumed more and more responsibility.
“She understands health policy very well. She has good relations with people within the department and then outside the department. And I've really enjoyed working with her because I can trust both her expertise as well as her as a person,” Dillaha said.