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April 2024
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Leading the Way in Public Health

Past International Director draws on his Toastmasters training for COVID communications.

By Paul Sterman

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Click play to hear an exclusive podcast interview with Michael Osur and the hosts of The Toastmasters Podcast.

There are challenges … and then there are challenges. Consider the daily duties of Michael Osur, DTM. His job? Helping to combat the COVID-19 crisis.

Communication and leadership skills are at the heart of what he does. As assistant director and chief health strategist of the Riverside County Department of Public Health in California, Osur oversees a staff of 600 with a combined budget of over 125 million dollars. Though he works on many public-health issues, COVID-19 has been front and center since the pandemic emerged globally a little over a year ago.

Osur has worked feverishly to get messaging out to the public—about COVID guidelines, COVID tests, contact tracing, wearing masks, getting vaccine shots. Since January he has been one of three leaders managing the county’s COVID-vaccine operations, a daunting logistical feat of vaccinating about 15,000 people a day.

All this while trying to be a voice of reassurance and inspiration for his department during a pandemic that has claimed more than 3 million lives around the world.

“COVID has required all the skills we have, to be able to deal with the constant communication, the constant spotlight on us, the constant political pressures—it’s off the charts,” says Osur, a member of Toastmasters International’s Board of Directors from 2016 to 2018.

“None of us have taken more than one or two days off at any one time in over a year,” he adds. “It’s all day long, every day…. Nothing compares to this.”

Osur is a go-to source for journalists covering public-health issues in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs regions, never more so than in the past year. He is consistently quoted in newspaper articles and appears regularly on television news programs. Last August, he was asked to discuss COVID-related challenges on a prominent national radio show, “All Things Considered.”

Reporters value his ability to be clear, concise, and to the point in his answers. He’s had plenty of practice: The 13-year Toastmaster currently belongs to five clubs, including That’s Debatable, where members engage in debates on a variety of issues (Sample: “Facebook should or should not be prosecuted in an anti-trust case.”) The skills also pay off in his communication with his staff. Leading the operations of a department faced daily with pressure-filled public-health tasks, Osur must be direct, succinct, and crystal-clear. There are numerous meetings, all of which must be tightly structured and ultra-efficient.

For the vaccine operations, there are about 50 to 75 employees coordinating the logistics, and another 400 to 500 people administering the vaccine at sites throughout a county that is approximately 7,200 square miles.

“Everyone has to be very clear on what their jobs are and what’s needed, and at the incident command level we have to make sure that happens,” says Osur, who since January has served as the county’s Deputy Incident Commander for Vaccine Response. “And not only make sure that 600 people know what’s going on, but we have to vaccinate 13,000 to 15,000 people a day.

“Just think of the enormity of that.”

Despite the rush and urgency, he notes, he can’t afford to lose sight of interpersonal dynamics. Listening closely and communicating respectfully are qualities he says he developed in Toastmasters. In high-stress moments at work, his tone with people can sometimes be more abrupt and harsh than he means it to be, Osur admits. When that happens, he makes a point of circling back with the person he was talking to.

Leading the operations of a department faced daily with pressure-filled public-health tasks, Osur must be direct, succinct, and crystal-clear.

“I have to say something like, ‘Probably what I said yesterday isn’t what I meant. What I meant was, You’re doing a great job but I really need this every day at 3 p.m. and I’m sorry if I was gruff with you when it came in late, and I know you’re working really hard too.’

“That was not me pre-Toastmasters.”

Osur says he has come to realize that leadership and communication often boil down to understanding what people need, and giving it to them. That’s true whether you’re handing down health directives or speaking at District conferences or answering questions from the media. “What do you need and how can I help? That’s the hidden message of Toastmasters, right?”

Although the pandemic has dominated Osur’s professional life over the past year, his job responsibilities for Riverside County—where he has worked for more than 25 years—encompass a wide range, as befits an area with 2.4 million residents. He deals with HIV/AIDS programs and injury-prevention services, advocates for more parks and trails, exhorts residents to use public spaces for bike-riding and other exercise, and stresses a message of healthier eating.

“My goal for public health,” he says, “is to make 2.4 million people get healthier.”

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