Summit County Health: We’re watching you, but in a good way


A couple weeks ago, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill that bans the use of TikTok in the state, citing concerns over access to personal data and ongoing surveillance efforts. Personally, I don’t use this app and know very little about its operation. The extent of my TikTok knowledge is based on what I have learned through the various news outlets regarding allegations of spying, personal data breaches, and ongoing surveillance from foreign governments. I cannot speak to the validity of such claims, nor have I researched them with the intent to educate myself. Given that I don’t use it or have a need for it, I have never been too concerned about how I might be at personal risk.

After reading this news, I started thinking about the various methods of surveillance and how I am impacted. Although I do my best to limit access to my data and analytics from nefarious characters, and I always select the “ask app not to track user data” option when installing a new app on my phone, I know the mobile tracking device I carry with me everywhere is still sharing my information. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the term surveillance, when used in a general context, creates concern when there is no further explanation or clarification given.

Only time will tell if the actions taken in Montana will achieve the intended outcomes, or if the current undertaking by our state Legislature limiting access to the darker realms of the internet is successful. I believe both efforts to safeguard individuals mean well, but it is a big lift.

However, not all surveillance is bad. In some cases, like that of public health, the constant and consistent evaluation of drinking water provides significant individual and social benefits. I recognize that I may be comparing apples to oranges when it comes to individual surveillance versus public health surveillance, but the point to be made is that in certain cases, ongoing oversight is not only good practice, but it is necessary.

Public health surveillance efforts have a proven track record of minimizing or stopping situations that could negatively impact health. The most recent example is a boil order that was issued to a water system in Summit County when the monthly water quality sample did not meet drinking water standards. Although this particular water system has submitted thousands of good water samples throughout the years and has a solid track record of compliance, this particular sample was different. And, while the experience of a boil order is inconvenient and frustrating for all involved, the practice of repetitive monthly sampling paid off. Early detection led to quick action by the water company and in the end, eliminated the public health threat and associated waterborne illness.

Having been through a boil order or two in my career, I can attest that the process is not enjoyable. I commend the water purveyor for its honest approach to ensuring the safety of its customers through a commitment to compliance. I also appreciate the quick and strategic response. Monthly water sampling is repetitive, unexciting, and comes with a financial commitment. However, it is essential to the surveillance arm of public health and important to protect individual health. I recognize that, and so do the numerous private and public water companies throughout Summit County. If I had to use one word, or maybe two, to sum up this situation and the role surveillance played, I would say successful and essential.

This recent example celebrates the value of surveillance when used for the right reasons. It also provides validation that the current practices can identify small changes in a very large system across a variety of potential public health threats. It is remarkable when you think about being able to pinpoint a single occurrence among thousands of samples, data points, or indicators, and then quickly respond to the situation as necessary to protect public health. Using data gathered through surveillance efforts to drive our actions, and the actions of our partners in the community, is pretty cool. 

Although I have used a recent water sampling example to illustrate the effectiveness of the public health surveillance system, the overall effort is much bigger than described here. There is a team of public health professionals on the Wasatch Back, including our friends at the Wasatch County Health Department, who are engaged 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, in the ongoing surveillance of matters pertaining to public health with the sole purpose of keeping molehills small and avoiding mountains when possible.

Just know that we are always watching, we are ever-present, and your wellbeing is under constant surveillance, analysis and review. There is no escaping our reach. But, not in a weird or obtrusive way; in a good way that allows you to know with full confidence that your kids can safely drink from the tap this summer while doing what kids do best — being kids.

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