NORWOOD, MA – After serving as Norwood’s Health Department director for the past 15 years, Sigalle Reiss is leaving her position to head Brookline’s public health department.
Reiss has played a critical role in shepherding the town through the pandemic for the past two years. Her presence has been ubiquitous in Norwood – although mostly virtual – as she provided the latest guidance and data that has shaped school and town policy.
Reiss, a Westwood resident, said that while she may be remembered most for her work during COVID-19, she strove to improve other aspects of public health policy including youth substance abuse and mental health awareness, launching the focus on modern public health issues.
“I think my role as director has changed dramatically not just in the last two years, but really over the 15 years” she said. “We’ve really integrated into what we call Public Health 2.0, where it’s working with the community and community-based organizations. That has launched us into many different directions. A lot of those preventative projects we do is because of those collaborations.”
One group with which Reiss has worked closely and of which she is most proud is Impact Norwood, a group that works to prevent youth substance addiction while highlighting the positive traits of teens.
While the role of the department has expanded, it still focuses on health inspections and communicable disease control. She drew an analogy to John Snow, the father of modern epidemiology, who was able to trace a cholera outbreak to a water pump.
“I use that example because that’s what we do in public health all the time,” Reiss explained. “Whether it’s in regard to mental health, substance abuse, or COVID, we investigate it, identify it, remove the risk factor and insert interventions for preventative measures.”
Through a grant to Impact Norwood, a social norms campaign was introduced to change the perception of alcohol and substance use as anti-smoking campaigns have done over the past two decades.
“We changed the whole social culture around tobacco, so that is what we want to do about substance use,” she said. Through Impact Norwood, teens analyzed different advertising campaigns to see how they were targeted by using colors or wording that young people would find appealing. The group also focused on breaking the stereotypes around young people by showing that most students participate in positive activities like sports or the arts.
“Because of where they are in brain development, they want to be just like their peers,” she said. “When they understand that most of their peers aren’t participating in those activities, it allows them the space to say, ‘I don’t want to do that either.'”
Vaping is another area where teens are realizing that they have been targeted to become addicted to nicotine through enticing flavors and colorful ads. A survey on vaping and the perception of it will be released in the spring.
Policy and community engagement go hand in hand. The Board of Health and General Manager Tony Mazzucco have been supportive of her work, particularly on tobacco and nicotine use as well as mental health.
Combatting the pandemic has been the most challenging phase during her time in Norwood, reflecting its impact worldwide.
“The length of the response has been exhausting,” Reiss said., “particularly in the beginning because of the constantly changing environment. One thing I do say about public health is that it is always constantly changing. I would say the speed at which it changed was much more intense during the pandemic.”