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Health Centers in the New Era of Emergency Preparedness

Health Centers in the New Era of Emergency Preparedness

Early 2020 ushered us into a new era of society, healthcare, and preparedness. Despite decades of pandemic planning, our reality was rapidly and drastically impacted by the spread of the novel SARS CoV-2 (COVID-19) virus. Health Centers have played a vital role in response to the ongoing Public Health Emergency (PHE) for over two years, and the lessons learned have been many and shared across the healthcare and public health sectors. Engaging Florida’s Community Health Centers in After-Action Reporting, FACHC has recognized how long-standing CHC characteristics, such as their mission-driven culture, adaptability, and system-based approaches, have been instrumental in overcoming significant challenges primarily related to shifting patient demands, staffing, and global supply chain issues.

Although working through the COVID pandemic was navigating a whole new territory, CHCs have significant experience responding to emergencies and disasters, having dealt with hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, infectious disease outbreaks, flooding, and even ice storms. The communication and coordination capabilities of CHCs have been demonstrated consistently, developing resilience and a unique perspective on the importance of emergency management and Whole Community Preparedness’

Now more than ever, CHCs are meeting the diverse and growing needs of vulnerable populations, individuals without healthcare coverage, and those seeking patient-centered care close to home. CHCs’ ability to address a wide range of primary care issues, from dental to behavioral health, makes them a crucial part of the nation’s healthcare infrastructure and pandemic recovery. Prompted by the pandemic’s restrictions and a focus on safety for all, CHCs launched expanded telehealth operations to enhance access to care. Another point of expansion has been seen in mobile health operations, with CHCs bringing testing and vaccination services into communities that would otherwise remain out of reach. With support from HRSA’s various supply programs, CHCs have distributed hundreds of thousands of at-home tests and N95 masks, and are positioned to play a significant role in the National Test-to-Treat program.

Looking ahead, the 2022 Hurricane Season is predicted to be above-average yet again. This annual focus on the tropics is now commonly paired with a discussion of the short- and long-term effects of climate change, especially across Florida.  Focusing on preventative measures, CHCs can take steps to fortify their facilities and adjust plans to address environmental risks and evacuation zones. Flood protection and emergency power supply options (including generators and solar options) can be explored and possibly funded through Mitigation grants and other partnership initiatives. Across all phases of Emergency Management (mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery), the importance of integrating with local partners and regional Health Care Coalitions (HCCs) cannot be understated.  Ongoing HCC engagement supports effective communication and coordination and further defines CHC and partner roles at the local level.

The cycle of preparedness promotes continuous planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluating, and taking corrective action (improving) to enhance capabilities in incident response. FACHC supports all CHCs in these efforts while maintaining situational awareness among various State, Federal, and NGO partners, providing training and deploying resources/equipment to support emergency operations statewide. Through robust communication and enhanced coordination, CHCs will continue to emerge as resilient leaders in the new era of healthcare emergency preparedness and response.  

Gianna Van Winkle, MBA
Director, Emergency Management Programs
Florida Association of Community Health Centers, Inc.

Hard work by Community Health Centers and Innovation lead Recovery Operations in Hurricane Michael Impact Areas

Hard work by Community Health Centers and Innovation lead Recovery Operations in Hurricane Michael Impact Areas

Hurricane Michael arrived and left in a day but the challenges of a recovering region are certainly still there. PanCare and North Florida facilities felt the brunt of Michael in locations up and down the panhandle coast, including communities they serve on the Georgia and Alabama lines. Both members temporarily lost several medical facilities during the first two weeks after landfall. Unfortunately, PanCare's admin and main dental site in Panama City along with its primary care and dental site in Marianna suffered serious enough damage to knock them out of operation for months to come.

Both overcame issues ranging from lack of electric, water, sewer, excessive debris, damaged/closed main roads, and dusk to dawn curfews just to open services again.  North Florida’s Wewahitchka site was temporarily utilized by the national guard and then suffered a large diesel fuel spill (since cleaned up by the private vendor).

Additional issues include disruption of staff due to widespread damages to their homes and apartments and shutdown of area infrastructure.  For the first week post-storm, there were no operating gas stations, grocery stores, banks, etc. open for miles and of course, basic municipal electric, water, sewer and gas services were gone.  Again, many staff members were dealing with unexpected homelessness and displaced family members.

For the last few weeks, PanCare has rolled out and positioned mobile units at locations in Panama City, Mexico beach, Marianna and several other high-need areas. With the shut-down of hospitals and many doctor offices due to damage, PanCare is one of the few primary care providers available to the stricken communities they serve.

All of these challenges were met with huge efforts by both CHC’s leadership and staff and plentiful assistance from our members and several NGO Aid organizations! 

Here is a short list of some of the actions taken to help stand-up medical services:

  • CHC members donating Hurricane Packs and other medical supplies and the use of mobile units for deployment.
  • PanCare staffed and rolled out all its mobile units to needed locations just a few days after storm impact; it consolidated its 15th street administrative site to its diesel generated 11th street site and also continued with primary care at this location.
  • PanCare began arranging for temporary housing for impacted staff, and was able to provide gas to staff through a private vendor from Texas along with gas cards from Direct Relief.
  • Bond CHC loaned its Mobile unit to N. Florida CHC so services in Havana FL could continue until that Health Center was operational.
  • The damaged PanCare sites in PC and Marianna now have field grade Medical tents being placed there by the International Medical Corps allowing them to offer regular services until the main buildings are fixed.
  • FACHC has worked with Direct relief and Americares on several donations of materials, including 3500 hygiene kits, two 15,000 watt portable gas generators, and cash donations to assist members.
  • County Emergency Management provided requested water, portable sinks, security, and portlets at our sites to help make them and mobile units operational.
  • We recently received EM priority service designations by ATT for PanCare’s new wireless hotspots to ensure adequate IP throughput.

There are many other small successes like the ones listed above and there is much more to be accomplished before we reach full recovery. We do need to recognize our helpers!  We sincerely appreciate the volunteer efforts by other members of FACHC, our NGO partners, and State ESF-8 community.  It has allowed the recovery efforts to proceed at a quickening pace while keeping a focus on service to the community and safety and well-being of staff. Thank you again for your efforts!  Other updates will follow.

Thomas J. Knox Jr., MPA
Director Emergency Preparedness &
Education Programs