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Annual County Health Rankings report shows north country counties are mostly unhealthy


North country counties are some of the unhealthiest in the state, according to the annual County Health Rankings and Roadmaps.

But that’s nothing new to the counties’ public health agencies. They are aware of health concerns, and agency representatives say they’ve been busy working to improve overall health of residents.

“These rankings are not a surprise,” said Susan J. Hathaway, St. Lawrence County public health director. “It’s tough. We’re huge. We’re rural. I’d love someday to see us inch up in ranking, but it’s going to take a lot of work.”

Out of 62 counties in the state, St. Lawrence County ranked 55th in health outcomes and 60th in health factors, while Jefferson County ranked 29th in health outcomes and 58th in health factors. Lewis County was 23rd in health outcomes and 32nd in health factors, and Franklin County ranked 42nd in health outcomes and 44th in health factors.

Karen L. Odegaard, community engagement specialist for the rankings program, said health outcomes looks at the length and quality of life, while health factors look at health behavior, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment.

“We look at health outcomes as a measure of today’s health, and we look at health factors as things that influence health outcomes,” Ms. Odegaard said. “We use County Health Rankings as a call to action. It makes it easy to compare in state.”

Formerly known as just County Health Rankings, the program shifted to include road maps, Ms. Odegaard said, which show what counties may do to improve their future rankings.

Ms. Hathaway said St. Lawrence County has been on the path toward improvement, but there have been many roadblocks to achieving an overall healthier county.

In terms of health-care accessibility, Ms. Hathaway said, St. Lawrence County lacks in employment opportunities for spouses of health-care specialists needed in the area.

“You have to have jobs and jobs for spouses,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of activities. Those are challenges to bring professionals here. We can also go into the health outcomes, but the social and economic factors are an issue.”

That also is a problem in Lewis County, where county Public Health Director Carol A. Paluck said health behaviors around smoking, obesity, drinking alcohol, teenage birth rates and sexually transmitted diseases are hard to control and change.

It’s not all bad news in Lewis County, though. Mrs. Paluck said the public health agency there has a priorities council that meets quarterly to discuss how the county can best address health-related issues. Lewis County Public Health said a grant from the Dyson Foundation to the North Country Prenatal/Perinatal Council will help lower teenage birth rates. Ideally, that would increase the county’s rankings, she said.

“There are good things going on here,” Mrs. Paluck said.

Meanwhile, Jefferson County Public Health Service officials recognize that, while they, too, are ranked low, the county is taking small steps toward having healthier communities.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily what we did in the last two years, but the last 10 years that has impacted it,” said Faith E. Lustik, county health planner.

Programs the agency has been involved with in the past several years, she said, have helped make the county slightly healthier. Additional access to fresh produce and trail development, among other programs, have been environmental changes adopted by many Jefferson County communities.

Stephen A. Jennings, Jefferson County Public Health Service information officer, said rankings could also fluctuate with population changes, which is something Jefferson County is used to with Fort Drum deployment schedules.

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps receives support from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

For more information, visit the ranking website at

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