COVID-19 reached Washington County on March 14, 2020 at 8:45 pm.
Lowell Johnson, director of the county’s Department of Public Health and Environment, was at home in Oakdale that Saturday night when his cellphone rang. An epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health was in line with news that a Washington County resident had tested positive for the coronavirus.
As case numbers rose in subsequent weeks, department staff worked “long days, nights and weekends … responding to the needs of the community,” Johnson said. “We have done tens of thousands of vaccinations and COVID tests in the community. It has been an overwhelming response from the entire organization.”
County Commissioner Gary Krisel said Johnson, 62, who retired Friday after 36 years in Washington County, was the perfect person to be the director of public health during the pandemic.
“Lowell’s leadership has been so influential in keeping our community safe,” he said. “He is not the kind of guy who runs around with his hair on fire. A lot is measured on how he proceeds. He is a remarkable leader, and we are definitely going to miss him.”
In the years before the pandemic, Johnson led the county’s response after potentially harmful perfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFASs — were found in its groundwater; Following the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, and the death of two children – one in 2010, the other in 2012 – from a rare brain-eating amoeba. He is the director of the department since 2005.
an everlasting trace of tragedy
Particularly painful, he said, were the deaths of 7-year-old Annie Bahnman in 2010 and 9-year-old Jack Ariola Ehrenburg in 2012 from primary amoebic meningoencephalitis. was held responsible for both deaths Naegleria fowleri, a parasite that lives in warm fresh water and is harmful when it enters the human body through the nose. Infection usually occurs during long periods of warm weather, when low water levels and high water temperatures are common.
“I had never heard of the disease,” he said. “I certainly didn’t know about the amoeba that causes it. Before that we had no reason to believe it was an environmental health problem for us.”
Cases of Stillwater’s Lily Lake were the first documented cases in the northern part of the United States. According to Johnson, they occurred 500 miles or so from the northernmost cases previously documented.
“They were obviously both very, very sad events for our community,” he said. “To this day, the thought of both of those cases breaks my heart.”
wish to help
County Administrator Kevin Corbid called Johnson an “extraordinary and humble public servant”. This is the part I will always remember. His potential has really shined in these last few years. “
Speaking recently about filling an open position with the county’s management team, Corbid said, “One supervisor said what he really appreciated about Lowell was that he valued everyone in the department.” made felt, irrespective of their tenure or position within the organization.
“He was just an exceptional leader in a wide range of county services that are so important to so many people,” Corbid said. “He did it with so much compassion and empathy and really wanted to help those who needed county services.”
Johnson grew up in Albert Lee, graduating from Albert Lee High School and later graduating from Mankato State University with a bachelor’s degree in community health services. He also has a two-year degree in emergency medical care and rescue from MSU (now Minnesota State, Mankato).
“I loved doing EMS work, pre-hospital care, but I constantly thought to myself, ‘Gee, why aren’t people wearing seat belts?’ Or ‘it looks like we can do more to prevent heart disease,’ he said. “The classic is that we would take the emphysemic patient into an ambulance, and they would say, ‘Wait, my cigarettes are on the counter.’ I was always thinking about prevention. I knew we could do more if we could reach more people, and not one at a time.”
participant in retirement
Johnson worked as an EMS planner for the Area 9 Development Commission in Mankato before taking a job as the emergency services manager for Washington County in 1985.
Johnson and his wife Bev have three children and two grandchildren. Bev Johnson, program coordinator for graduate programs in music education at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, is also retiring Friday.
“We will step into that world of retirement hand-in-hand,” he said. “I’m very looking forward to it.”
Corbid said three finalists were interviewed for the directorship this week and a new director should be named soon. He said the department would be run by the department’s deputy director, David Brummel, until a new director was started.