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Contributed photo / Dr. Mary Lambert is a Chattanooga native who has served in multiple assignments across the nation, including with the assistant secretary of health, the White House, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She was also deployed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and in response to the national capitol anthrax exposure event. She is a retired O-6 from the U.S. Army and U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly has chosen public health veteran and Chattanooga native Mary Lambert to direct the city's new Office of Community Health.

Despite a long list of accomplishments, Lambert called her new position in Chattanooga government her "dream job."

"It is very special to come home and be asked to do this," she said. "Some of the other assignments that I've had — White House, secretary's office, surgeon general, CDC, FDA — but I'm gonna start calling this my dream job, just because it's working to really make a difference day to day in the health of our community citizens."

Lambert's career in public health spans more than four decades, beginning as a public health nurse at the Hamilton County Health Department, and then going on to hold an array of director and leadership roles in the top government agencies that comprise the United States' health care and public health system, including the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Lambert, who obtained a doctorate in nursing practice from Vanderbilt University, also has held numerous faculty positions, most recently at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

She acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead.

"There's lots of work that we have to roll up our sleeves and take a look at how to use this new office most effectively to help the citizens in our community," she said. "A key tool in the toolbox for an effort like this always has to be collaboration and coordination — What's already here? How well do we know about each other and what each other are doing? What can we pull off together?"

Lambert's top priorities initially will be helping navigate Chattanooga out of the pandemic and increasing the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations, particularly among underserved communities.

Another ongoing priority will be to reduce health disparities across the city. She said Chattanooga is blessed with a strong health care infrastructure that includes three strong hospitals and countless health care providers, but many citizens lack access to quality medical care.

"This pandemic has laid bare an elephant, again, for us — disparities, inefficiencies, things that are happening that could have been prevented, the need for response capabilities when we do have large-scale occurrences like diseases — so this makes it a priority to have an office that can focus on looking at all of those pieces," Lambert said.

In an emailed statement, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said he chose Lambert for the role because she's "one of our nation's most experienced and thoughtful public health voices."

"I had the opportunity to learn about her experience throughout the campaign [for mayor] but also saw her passion for the work as she helped guide the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga's efforts to bring together a coalition of faith leaders, community clinics, and nonprofits to conduct COVID-19 testing last summer and increase access to vaccinations earlier this year," Kelly said. "As we look to move past this pandemic, I knew our city would need a leader who would help bring the public back into public health decisions. Community engagement is essential if you want to create a healthier city for everyone, and we're fortunate that Dr. Lambert is leading the work."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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