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She led King County's public health efforts for years. Now Patty Hayes wants to study the cosmos

Patty Hayes, director of public health for Seattle and King County, talks to reporters March 4, 2020, during a news conference in Seattle.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press file
Patty Hayes, director of public health for Seattle and King County, talks to reporters March 4, 2020, during a news conference in Seattle.

Friday was the last day on the job for the head of Public Health – Seattle & King County. Patty Hayes retires after seven years in charge of the agency and after 30 years in public health.

The last year, in particular, has been an enormous challenge for public health professionals around the world. But Hayes says the pandemic was not a factor in her decision to leave. She’d been considering it since before COVID-19 took her work into overdrive. But as the pandemic begins to ebb, Hayes says it “feels like it was an OK time to take my retirement.”

In her retirement from public health, Hayes plans to work with the University of Washington School of Nursing and its new center for anti-racism in nursing, to help the profession become more diverse and teach nurses “how to be disruptors” in the field.

She also plans to study cosmology – the origins of the universe – which has been a side interest for years. Listen to her interview above, or read some highlights below.


On getting into public health: “After I got my master’s degree, I entered into doing home visiting. I was working to help families who were facing the placement of a loved-one in a long-term care facility. And my assignment was twofold. I worked with all the terminally ill children and their families. This was before we could manage terminally ill children at home and it was a very sad time. I could see the importance of the services and the role public health plays to not only prevent the problems, but help families through a crisis like the death of a child.

“And then secondly, I was assigned to go into Harborview (Medical Center in Seattle) and assess folks who had been in head injury situations. These were mostly young men in their early 20s, because we didn’t have helmet laws. I was there to work with them and their families in a situation where their whole life had changed, their whole trajectory, and their dreams. It awoke in me a passion for injury prevention because that was totally avoidable. Totally. I took a job with the WSNA as their lobbyist, and I was on the team that passed the helmet law in Washington state.”

On how the profession has changed this year: “Clearly one of the big things that the entire country realized is that if you allow your public health infrastructure to be dismantled, which is what happened over a lot of years, then when you have an emergency of this sort, it is not ready to handle it. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. I’m hoping that the wisdom will prevail to really invest in the core public health infrastructure, so that we’re faster, better coordinated and ready for the next thing.”

On whether that will actually happen: “No, I’m not confident at all. That’s the ultimate test going forward. What I will say is Washington state has positioned itself better than almost any state in the country. And you can see that from our data, particularly King County.”

On dealing with human suffering and the stress of public health issues: “I’m lucky enough that when I got my master’s degree it was with a specialty in stress management, so I guess I don’t have any excuse. I’m very fortunate to have a very supportive family. I’m a swimmer, and that has given me great time to meditate. And I am a science geek, and for many years, I’ve been … reading and studying about cosmology and the quantum world. There’s nothing better to me than thinking about how we’re all part of this big universe, which Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the great astrophysicist, says, 'We’re all space dust.' And it, in a strange way, brings me great balance.”


Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.