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Jackson County's top doc to retire; will be replaced by Josephine County deputy health officer

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MEDFORD, Ore. — Jackson County's medical director and health officer, Dr. Jim Shames, will retire next month after nearly 20 years with the public health department — a career now punctuated by a worldwide pandemic that strained Jackson County's medical network. He'll be replaced by someone already well-acquainted with the public health landscape of the Rogue Valley.

Dr. Shames had been contemplating retirement before the pandemic hit, but remained in the role to steer the ship of Jackson County Public Health through the worst of it. While most Jackson County residents probably didn't know of Shames before COVID-19, he's now become a familiar face, appearing frequently in local media to explain matters of public health (not all of it COVID-related).

"There were definitely conversations that he was ready to retire, then COVID-19 happened and so he has stayed on as our health officer, really providing us a lot of needed guidance — it's been a whirlwind with COVID-19," said Tanya Phillips, health promotion manager at JCPH. "For us as Jackson County Public Health, having that kind of leadership, especially from our health officer, has been tremendous. We couldn't have done it without his guidance or him."

Jackson County's new medical director will be Dr. Leona O'Keefe, who currently serves as deputy health officer for Josephine County. Like Shames, O'Keefe has emerged as a key public health communicator over the course of the pandemic.

"We're sad to see her go, but it's the right move for her," said Josephine County Public Health director Mike Weber.

Phillips said that, on top of cooperating with Jackson County on a mutual COVID-19 response, O'Keefe has also filled in as deputy health officer for Jackson County when Shames was unavailable.

To replace O'Keefe, Josephine County will be hiring two deputy health officers: Dr. Katherine Mechling and Dr. Barbra Villona.

"We've been working with [Dr. Mechling] since the beginning," said Weber. "She's been a partner since day one."

O'Keefe starts as Jackson County medical director in early January, and Shames is expected to retire after a brief transition period.

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