DSHS Avoids Public Health Crisis

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Hurricane Ike Feature - November 2008


Tex Med . 2008;104(11):44-45.

By  Crystal Conde
Associate Editor

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) worked feverishly to ensure the health and safety of residents, emergency workers, and medical responders in Texas' hurricane-impacted areas. With a full-time, fully staffed regional office in Houston, DSHS worked with state, regional, and local public health partners to assure the provision of essential public health services to about 5 million Texans in a 16-county area of Southeast Texas.

Thousands of physicians and other medical professionals, as well as an estimated 500 DSHS staff members, worked around the clock each day, rotating shifts to provide response and recovery support. The department's emergency preparedness planning and lessons learned from past hurricanes paid off, according to David Lakey, MD, DSHS commissioner.

Dr. Lakey says the evacuation of people with medical special needs and the development of plans for medical special needs shelters are an outgrowth of response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Hurricane Ike made a direct hit on Galveston Island and drove through the heart of Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, precipitating a major public health response across Texas.

"There's a huge difference between having a plan that sits neatly on the shelf and having a plan that you have tested, have identified the gaps, and then have worked to solve those gaps," he said.

Hurricane Ike was not the only storm to come calling on Texas this summer, however. First came Dolly, then Edouard, followed by Gustav. Each required a response and a recovery component that necessitated massive resources.

Before Hurricane Ike hit, DSHS worked on evacuating and sheltering patients with medical special needs. Immediately following the storm, Galveston faced a lack of public health and medical infrastructure. The community was without running water, a hospital, wastewater service, or electricity, and residents had access to temporary urgent care only. State and federal officials, along with DSHS, urged Galveston residents not to occupy the area until basic resources were restored.

The dire conditions were a breeding ground for disease, Dr. Lakey said.

"No electricity or gas means you can't boil water or cook your food. Without running water, you can't properly wash your hands or clean utensils," he said. "Lack of a sewer system creates conditions that breed diseases. Little or no power means no refrigeration and no air conditioning. And few doctors and health facilities mean that medical conditions can't be treated quickly."

In the Houston and Beaumont areas, assisting hospitals and setting up dialysis facilities were priorities. The department also vaccinated residents and those in shelters for tetanus, hepatitis, and influenza.

In addition, DSHS set up toll-free numbers for those displaced by Hurricane Ike to locate Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program clinics, dialysis services, and medical special needs evacuees.

Once immediate needs for electricity, clean water, and wastewater services had been met, communities would have to begin rebuilding efforts.

"With rebuilding comes the potential for injuries and illnesses. People will need to ensure that their homes are safe to reenter, that they are prepared to work safely in their homes and yards, and that they do not extend their physical limits by overworking," Dr. Lakey said. "Communities will also need disaster mental health services to help the public deal with the enormous disruptions and losses."        

DSHS set up a crisis hotline number those affected by the hurricane could call for information on stress management, crisis counseling, substance abuse, and spiritual assistance in their communities. Designated mental health/mental retardation centers, shelters, local points of dispensing, and disaster recovery centers also provided assistance.

Crystal Conde can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1385, or (512) 370-1385; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by e-mail at Crystal Conde .



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