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CDC expert, formerly with Carolinas Medical Center, to lead Mecklenburg health department

A national expert on cancer prevention who leads a program of state cancer coalitions for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is Mecklenburg County’s new health director.

Dr. Marcus Plescia, who had worked in Charlotte from 1995 to 2003, will replace former director Dr. Wynn Mabry, who retired June 30. Mecklenburg had been without a health director since then, with Assistant County Manager Michelle Lancaster overseeing the department.

Plescia will be paid $218,000 a year to lead a department that provides child immunizations, investigates disease outbreaks and inspects restaurants and environmental threats. The department has about 500 employees and a budget of about $35 million.

Plescia, 51, has been with the CDC since 2009 as head of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. He’s overseen national programs for comprehensive cancer control, breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screening and state cancer registries, according to a biography from the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable.

But he knows Charlotte and North Carolina well. And he said he’s excited to return.

“I think that local public health is just kind of where it happens,” Plescia said in a telephone interview Monday.

Recalling his previous work trying to reduce health disparities in northwest Charlotte, Plescia said he intends to continue that focus on fighting chronic disease through community-based interventions.

“I think Charlotte is the perfect place to do that kind of work, to engage the health department further into the community,” Plescia said. “I really thought that would be an exciting opportunity.”

A Florida native, he earned a bachelor of science degree, a master’s in public health and his medical degree from UNC Chapel Hill. From 1995 to 2003, he worked as a family physician at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte and was a UNC medical school faculty member.

Plescia nurtured an interest in training doctors in underserved urban areas while he trained at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y. He brought that interest to Charlotte, where he was assistant residency director for Carolinas HealthCare System and worked with family medicine residents at Carolinas Medical Center-Biddle Point, a primary care health center that serves a largely black population on Beatties Ford Road. In 1999, the CDC awarded Plescia an eight-year, $7 million grant to build a community primary care demonstration project to address racial and ethnic disparities in Charlotte.

Dr. Jessica Schorr Saxe, a family physician who worked with Plescia at the Biddle Point health center, was delighted Monday to hear the news. “He has strong training and background in primary care,” Saxe said. “He’s familiar with our area. He’s gained valuable experience at the CDC. I can’t imagine a more qualified person.”

Plescia said part of his interest in returning to Charlotte is that his wife, Ruth Ann Grissom, has a sister and other family in the area. Grissom writes a column about nature for the UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.

“I have a special place in my heart for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County,” Plescia said.

Plescia has practiced medicine in a vast number of settings, serving the homeless, urban poor and rural under-served populations. He has specialized experience in screening and diagnostic follow-up for cancer.

After he left Charlotte, Plescia was senior manager for the North Carolina Division of Public Health. As chief of the Chronic Disease and Injury Section, he oversaw program policy and planning for 12 state and federally funded public health programs, the roundtable biography said.

He helped increase state funding for chronic disease programs in the state and worked to get the legislature to pass state chronic disease policy for tobacco, cancer, obesity, stroke and injury, his biography said.

Plescia said that being leader of the Mecklenburg health department, the largest health department in the state, will give him an “effective bully pulpit for public health” and “an important opportunity to be a spokesman for issues affecting the state.”

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061; Garloch: 704-358-5078
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