Steady in the Storm

Onondaga County Commissioner of Health Indu Gupta used science, calmness to lead community through pandemic storm

By Margaret McCormick

Commissioner Indu Gupta, photographed by Chuck Wainwright in downtown Syracuse June 12.
Commissioner Indu Gupta, photographed by Chuck Wainwright in downtown Syracuse June 12.

Indu Gupta is a passionate advocate of work-life balance. She makes it a point to carve out time in her busy life for activities like yoga, meditation, drawing and cooking. Sometimes she plays the tabla, the drum set commonly played in North Indian music.

But the scales of work and life have been out of sync the last few months, and understandably so.

Gupta, 60, is Onondaga County’s commissioner of health. If you tune in to County Executive J. Ryan McMahon’s COVID-19 news briefings, you are no doubt familiar with her. The county’s top public health official has become more visible during the coronavirus pandemic, sometimes joining McMahon to share information on new cases, recovered cases, hospitalizations and number of deaths, field questions about testing and contact tracing and implore the public to take social distancing and stay-at-home recommendations seriously.

She sticks with science and data and speaks clearly and confidently, with a distinct Indian accent.

To say she has been putting in long hours is an understatement. Despite the round-the-clock nature of their work, Gupta encourages her staff to take some time each day to renew and recharge, even if it’s something as simple as taking a walk. “You have to put time into your own personal health,’’ she says. “It is very important for your well-being.. I practice what I preach most of the time. During this time, I couldn’t even find five minutes.’’

The coronavirus, the most severe pandemic the world has seen in more than a century, is without a doubt the most daunting challenge Gupta has faced in her career. It’s highly infectious, hits the elderly, people of color and people with underlying medical conditions particularly hard and has no known cure. At this writing, more than 180 Onondaga County residents have died as a result of the disease.

Since early March, Gupta and her team have been hyper-focused on mitigating COVID-19 — flattening the curve. She has earned high praise for her work in keeping Onondaga County residents safe and for her calm in a time of crisis.

“Dr. Gupta and her team have performed I think flawlessly in response to COVID-19, not just for our county but for surrounding counties,’’ McMahon says.

The health commissioner provided McMahon advice and counsel on everything from closing schools and shopping malls to canceling the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Syracuse, as well as bringing testing to high-risk places like senior living facilities. “I’m not a doctor and none of us has ever faced a pandemic before,’’ McMahon says. “For me, what’s really nice about her is we’ve developed a friendship and rapport. She has been a source of comfort. I’m very glad she’s on our team.’’

As a public health official, Gupta considers it her duty to focus on solutions rather than problems and to do so collaboratively. “The word ‘no’ doesn’t exist for me,’’ she says.

Indu Gupta speaking at the first of many COVID-19 press briefings in early March with County Executive Ryan McMahon on the left and Commissioner of Emergency Management Daniel Wears at right. Photo provided.
Indu Gupta speaking at the first of many COVID-19 press briefings in early March with County Executive Ryan McMahon on the left and Commissioner of Emergency Management Daniel Wears at right. Photo provided.

She grew up in northern India, in the province of Uttar Pradesh, and felt drawn to a career in medicine early on. She loved science, especially biology, and recalls with enthusiasm dissecting insects in school. The family moved often. Her father was a veterinarian and she sometimes accompanied him when he visited villages to make medical calls. Her mother encouraged her and her siblings to excel in school.

“Medicine is considered a very noble profession and my mother was a very strong advocate of education, especially for girls,’’ Gupta says. “She wanted her daughters to get the highest education possible. It seemed like you could be a professor, a teacher, an engineer or a doctor. I thought, doctors are the ones who interact with people and I wanted to be a doctor. It’s very simple — it was a girl’s dream to be a doctor.’’

She completed her medical degree in India and came to the United States as a young woman to continue her studies. She earned a master’s degree in public administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and later earned a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She is board-certified in internal medicine.

‘We are in good hands’

Gupta’s long career has taken her from Syracuse to California and back again. She served as director of preventive services for the Onondaga County Health Department from 2005 to 2007, practiced medicine at St. Joseph’s Hospital and taught at Upstate Medical University. She was named commissioner of health in 2014. At the time of her appointment, she was an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“She’s an impressive woman with terrific credentials, education and experience,’’ former County Executive Joanie Mahoney said at the time of Gupta’s appointment. “I think we are in good hands.”

“I moved from LA and its nice beautiful weather to Syracuse,’’ Gupta says with a laugh.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, one might forget that Gupta has other responsibilities. And those responsibilities are major. As commissioner of health, she oversees the Onondaga County Health Department and its 240 employees. Their mission: protect and improve the health of all county residents. Under her leadership, the department underwent rigorous assessment to receive national accreditation through the Public Health Accreditation Board.

Gupta advises the many different divisions within the health department. Members of her team encourage the public to get flu and pneumonia shots, offer breast, cervical and colorectal screenings, educate residents about Lyme disease and mosquito-borne illness, inspect homes for lead, make sure restaurants and facilities handle food safely and analyze physical evidence to assist in the investigation of crimes for local law enforcement agencies and the district attorney’s office, among many other things.

“It’s a big department,’’ Gupta says. “A lot goes on in the health department. Everybody works quietly in the background to make sure the community is protected.’’

As the county reopens in stages, other critical issues are coming back into focus. One of the biggest challenges the health department has faced is the opioid epidemic, a nationwide problem that has had devastating effects locally. Another concern has been the seasonal appearance of potentially toxic algae bloom on Skaneateles Lake, an issue of urgency because the lake serves as the source of drinking water for Syracuse and its suburbs.

Gupta joins her cancer services program staff this past October during a Breast Cancer Awareness Month event where stencils were painted in many areas throughout Onondaga County promoting mammograms for early detection of breast cancer. Photo provided.
Gupta joins her cancer services program staff this past October during a Breast Cancer Awareness Month event where stencils were painted in many areas throughout Onondaga County promoting mammograms for early detection of breast cancer. Photo provided.

Gupta finds “deep satisfaction” in the many facets of her work despite the long days and sometimes sleepless nights. She is concerned about possible second and third waves of the coronavirus, as well as long-term implications of the pandemic, such as the impact of social isolation on mental health, the toll on parents working from home while also homeschooling children and employment uncertainties and the loss of medical insurance coverage.

She tries not to take it all home with her.

Gupta lives in Jamesville with her husband. They have two adult children. She de-stresses with hobbies like drawing and writing poetry and makes sure to fit in some fitness each day. She has a small home gym with elliptical equipment, weights and room to unroll her yoga mat. Even if it’s just 20 minutes a day, she says, it is critical to move our bodies.

Gupta also loves to cook. She’s a lifelong vegetarian and her specialty is fusion cuisine, a blend of some of the elements of her native Indian food and the food of other cultures. She especially likes to experiment with vegetarian Mexican and Italian food, including homemade pizza.

When it comes to age and aging, Gupta doesn’t like to dwell on the number. She encourages those in the 55-plus demographic to eat healthily, exercise and have “the age-appropriate health screenings” that are critical to disease prevention, like blood pressure and blood sugar checks, mammograms and prostate cancer screenings.

“Age is a number. It’s not about the quantity,’’ Gupta says. “You can have a long life but you want to have good quality.’’

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