Edgartown health agent Matt Poole was the first man in his family not to make his living at sea. Mr. Poole, who announced his retirement from the health department this spring, comes from seven generations of Vineyard commercial fishermen.

“My father took me out fishing with the goal of either making me love it or hate it,” Mr. Poole told the Gazette this week. “He succeeded.”

After 26 years with the Edgartown health department, Mr. Poole will return to his roots at the end of the month, continuing to fish as a hobby as he enjoys his retirement. But his work, spanning once-in-a-generation septic upgrades and the Covid-19 pandemic, never strayed too far from his ancestral domain. While Mr. Poole chose to work on land, he spent his career protecting the Island’s surrounding oceans and waterways.

“Environmental quality has a very quick translation to human health,” he said.

From food-borne illnesses found in shellfish to the cyanobacteria plaguing Chilmark Pond, Island water quality has a direct effect on public health and safety, he said. For that reason, most of the work the department does revolves around wastewater management and septic regulation.

“Wells and septics are the meat and potatoes of what we do,” Mr. Poole said.

Mr. Poole was well qualified to handle that line of work, majoring in environmental science in college and working in engineering in the private sector for several years before being elected to the Chilmark board of health in 1991, and then taking on the Edgartown board of health position in 1997.

When Mr. Poole started in Edgartown, he was one man in a department of two. Over time, he said he saw his responsibilities grow with the Island’s population. Houses got bigger, large events became more frequent, and more and more residents seemed keen to push the limits of their parcels, maximizing the number of bedrooms allowed per septic system, a regulation meant to keep nitrogen levels low, in and around Edgartown Great Pond.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Poole added, the department issued on average 30 private pool permits per year. Now, that number has swelled to 70.

“When I first started, there was time to roll your shirt sleeves up and figure it out if you didn’t have the answer,” he said. “It was a more forgiving pace.”

That pace reached breakneck speed at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, an ordeal Mr. Poole gives no small credit to his impending retirement. Throughout the spring of 2020, Mr. Poole’s eight-hour days stretched into twelve-hour days and overnight shifts as all six Island towns worked together to adapt to an ever-shifting public health landscape.

Even three years later, Mr. Poole has found it hard to shake off his pandemic-era habits, consistently working late hours to get the work done.

“The good news is that it was prescriptive,” Mr. Poole said. “They didn’t ask that every local health inspector be an epidemiologist. They made it achievable.”

The department, once confined to backyards and restaurant kitchens, was suddenly thrust into a more public-facing role, collaborating regularly with the town select board to enact up-to-date health ordinances. In some ways, Mr. Poole, alongside health agent Maura Valley, became the face of those ordinances, although he said he never experienced much pushback from the community.

“There was some modest skepticism...there was pandemic fatigue, but all in all the community was outstanding in participating in what was being asked of them,” Mr. Poole said. “We’re in a community that supports the public good.”
Mr. Poole’s place in the community was made clear when his retirement was announced at annual town meeting last week. Over 200 people rose to their feet for a standing ovation.

Mr. Poole shrugged off the recognition.

“They were just being polite,” he said.

Moving forward, Mr. Poole said the department has retained several lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic even as it still seeks a return to some semblance of normalcy. One of those lessons includes the importance of translation services.

Celena Guimaraes, a health assistant fluent in Portuguese, was first hired from a pandemic-era grant. Since joining the department, she’s ensured that critical health information can be distributed to the Island’s Brazilian Portuguese population.

“It helps us gain a lot of credibility in the community,” Mr. Poole said.

The Island health departments have also received a $1 million state grant to hire three new, three-year positions, to be split among the six Vineyard towns, Nantucket and Gosnold. Through that grant, the Island has been able to bring on Ms. Gumierrez full time, hire a new food inspector, and recruit a tick and wildlife specialist.

The influx of state and federal resources is certainly a boon to the department, but Mr. Poole is cognizant that more resources will mean more responsibility for the town to adequately administer these new services. To help with this, the town plans to hire a new health director, a more managerial, administrative role less encumbered by the day-to-day demands of the job. Previously, Mr. Poole had been pulling double-duty in both areas.

“My job description included everything from answering the phones to tackling the biggest problems,” he said, adding that the way the department works now requires more of a managerial divide. “It’s a good evolution. It’s a move in the right direction, but it’s a new thing.” 

Still, Mr. Poole believes that connecting with the community through on-site work will remain one of the most impactful elements of the job. Connor Downing, another born-and-raised Islander, has already been tapped to succeed Mr. Poole as health agent, but Mr. Poole acknowledged that the role may become increasingly difficult to fill.

“Finding competent, reliable staff has become a challenge because of the lack of housing,” he said. “If you don’t treat your employees very well, they’ll just leave.”

“I was treated very well,” he added. “I’m not too old and I’m able to retire.”

Mr. Poole said he will remain close to the department, working on an ad hoc basis, especially as they prepare for the town’s new wastewater management master plan and the downstream effects of upcoming Title V septic regulations.

He said he will miss the people he’s become used to seeing every day, from his health department colleagues to the “regulars” who still stop by town hall for free masks and Covid-19 test kits.

But he’s also looking forward to relaxing for the first time since March 2020.

“I have a boat I may actually start using instead of wondering if I should sell it,” he said. “Look for me on the derby board.”