/stories/2019/03/building-a-healthy-community

Building a healthy community

By Amanda M. Perez

Building a healthy community

By Amanda M. Perez
A University of Miami alumna is playing a leading role in Miami-Dade County to ensure public health.

Miami-Dade County is home to more than 2.7 million people, making it one of the largest counties in the United States. One of the several departments within the county that helps enhance and protect the well-being of all its residents is the Florida Department of Health.

Yesenia Villalta, a three-time University of Miami alumna, leads the team that works to protect, promote, and improve the health of the community.

Villalta, administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County, said she would not be where she is today if it wasn’t for her alma mater.

“My first experience with public health was during nursing school, and later in life, while studying for my masters I was assigned to come to the health department where I grew to love the work,” said Villalta. ”It’s fulfilling and it gives me satisfaction that I’m always making a difference.”

As the administrator for the department, Villalta plays a central role in monitoring several aspects in the county including immunization, environmental health, infectious diseases, community health, and planning. Villalta believes she is equipped to tackle these important issues because of her more than 15 years of experience working in various capacities and roles within the agency as well as the support of the public health staff she leads.

From 2014 until her recent appointment, she served in the role of nursing director. Prior to the appointment of nursing director, she worked as an assistant nursing director, and started off her career at the health department as a direct clinical provider. Although Villalta has only been in her current position for less than two months, she has her sights set on high goals for the county.

“I want to continue our journey of excellence. I also hope to keep working with the community to increase collaboration with everyone who makes up Miami-Dade County,” she said. “It takes a community effort to help tackle major issues we see on a daily basis like HIV and the opioid crisis.”

With the support of community partners, including the University of Miami, the health department is able to develop and implement health initiatives that benefit residents and visitors. Villalta said her department works closely with Dr. Hansel Tookes, assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and his pilot needle exchange program to help combat HIV transmission among at-risk groups. Most recently, the department also partnered with the University to help fight against the Zika virus.

“UM, among other community agencies, were key partners. The department worked with UM experts to learn more about Zika and its sequelae to our pregnant population infected with Zika. During the Zika outbreak in South Florida, we referred to many pediatricians and infectious disease doctors for the latest information. It’s a great collaboration,” said Villalta.

The University continues to be a big part of Villalta’s life.

“I love the School of Nursing and Health Studies and I love the University. It always feels like home to me,” she said. “I appreciate the professionalism and expertise the institution continues to offer.”