ORLEANS — Wednesday, Sept. 29 was by any measure a typical day in the Orleans Health Department. Employees answered phones and helped customers, while Bob Canning, the town’s longtime health agent, sat at his desk in his office overlooking the parking lot outside of town hall.
Of course, when Canning was hired in 1984, none of this existed. Looking back on his career in town, he can recall in vivid detail his first office, if you could call it that.
“When I started, I had a room that used to be a closet for the rec department,” he said. “No windows, a pole in the middle. What I had in there was a chair, a desk, a telephone and a waste basket. That was it. I had to go upstairs and ask how to get paper, pens, etc. I was given a pad, a pen and a pencil. They gave me some stuff just to get me started.”
On Oct. 1, 37 years to the day after he started work in Orleans, Canning retired from his post as the town’s first and only health agent. His retirement marks the end of a long career, one capped off by an unprecedented 18 months spent working to steer the town through a global public health crisis.
“I made it a goal to get through COVID as best as we can,” said Canning, who announced his plan to retire to the select board at the end of August. “COVID will be here a long time, but in my mind I thought ‘Let’s get to where the state of emergency is over and take a little bit of time after that to pick up the pieces.’ The state of emergency ended in May, and at that time I decided ‘Alright, let’s find a time to separate.’”
Canning comes from a family of public servants. His parents worked for the city of Springfield, his father as the deputy commissioner of public health and his mother as director of public health nursing.
“It’s what I was surrounded with and what was talked about,” he said. “My family were municipal workers, police, DPW and highway, schools. So it really was inviting to get into municipal work, because that’s what my family did.”
He embarked on his own career in public health while still attending Springfield College. In 1979, he took a summer job with the town of Dennis before moving on to the town of Acton the following year. In 1982, he started working for the town of Yarmouth, where Bruce Murphy, the town’s health agent, encouraged him to continue pursuing a career in the public health field.
In Orleans, residents voted at town meeting in 1984 to create an elected board of health. That also included the hiring of a health agent and the creation of a health department. Canning was hired on Oct. 1 of that year, and the town’s first three-member health board was elected at the 1985 annual town election.
“I look at it now and see what we have for an office, what we do for licensing and regulations and what our workflow is, it’s amazing,” Canning said.
“Orleans is a spectacular town, there’s no question about it,” he continued. “From the general population to the business owners to the town administration. John Kelly has been great, the select board has been great. We’ve had a tremendous board of health during my entire time here.”
During his lengthy tenure at town hall, Canning has witnessed an evolution in the way people look at numerous health issues. He recalls the town’s efforts to prohibit indoor smoking in restaurants, a move that proved controversial at the time as Orleans was the first town on the Cape to move ahead with the measure.
“We had a number of hearings, and the rooms were packed with players on both sides. The screams at the time were ‘Wait, we’ll be the only town that doesn’t allow smoking inside. No one will come.’ But a lot of those business owners came up to us, many years later, and said ‘You know what? It was the best thing for us.’”
But nothing in his four decades in public health compared to navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, Canning said.
Local, regional and state officials worked tirelessly to keep up with the virus, hewing closely to recommendations and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health department fielded phone calls from residents seeking answers and information about what to do, even as officials themselves were still getting educated about the virus and how to manage it, he said.
“People were calling up in a panic,” he recalled. “I’m caring for my 95-year-old mom, or my husband and I are in our 90s and we can’t get out to a clinic. All this different stuff is going on, and people were very, very concerned for their lives. This was something new coming down, and they didn’t know how it was going to affect them.”
In the thick of the pandemic, it was “all COVID all the time” in the health department, Canning said. That left other day-to-day business from permitting and inspections to returning correspondence to be done after hours and on weekends.
The town started to turn a corner on the pandemic as more vaccines became available locally. Canning said there were 21 vaccine clinics held in Orleans during the pandemic, most at the town’s DPW garage and some others at the council on aging. The local clinics were held in addition to county clinics held at sites including Cape Cod Community College and the Cape Cod Fairgrounds in East Falmouth. Availability of vaccines expanded further as local pharmacies began allowing residents to sign up for shots.
To date, Canning said, 93 percent of Orleans residents have been vaccinated for COVID-19.
“What’s a relief to me is that we have satisfied the population,” he said. “It’s my opinion that it’s a public health success when the doctors and the pharmacies are able to give flu shots, COVID shots. That’s a great success, because you want people to get the vaccine. The more accessible it is, the more people will get vaccinated.”
He’s quick to point out that the pandemic isn’t yet over, but Canning credited town employees and boards, as well as residents and local businesses, with coming together during the pandemic and adhering to local and state guidelines.
“The businesses in Orleans were fabulous, very, very few issues,” he said. “And these were people in fear of losing their businesses. The residents were incredibly supportive. They were great. It again just shows what a great community it is, a very educated community.”
With the worst of the pandemic in the rear view mirror, Canning has busied himself in recent months preparing the department for the transition to a new health agent. The select board voted in September to name Alexandra Finch, the town’s assistant health agent, as Canning’s successor.
“She is bright and energetic,” Canning said of Finch, with whom he has worked for four years. “Dealing with the community and issues, she’s very good. She’s a great selection for the position.”
As for life after town hall, Canning says he’s looking forward to retirement, even if he’s still not sure what the next stage of life has in store.
“I’ll find out. I really don’t know. It’s brand new, a new chapter. I will do something, but I don’t know what it is or how it will take place.”