Every day, San Juan Basin Public Health examines the health of our community and provides programs and resources to keep the community healthy. Just like each of us makes decisions that affect our health, so does a community. Access to clean air, health care, safe foods and pure water are a few essential things we need to stay healthy. But what happens when access to these things is threatened in an emergency?
The emergency managers and incident management team at SJBPH respond to major disasters to protect residents from disease outbreaks and other hazards that result from contaminated food and water, chemical releases, insect-borne diseases and unmet medical needs. Some examples of emergencies our team addresses include: communicable disease outbreaks, winter storms, wildfires, floods, power outages and hazardous materials incidents. The focus of our team is to prevent epidemics, prevent injury, prevent the spread of disease, promote and encourage healthy behaviors, protect against environmental hazards, respond to disasters and assist our community in recovery.
Public health emergency preparedness is the capability of public health and health care systems, communities and individuals to prepare for, mitigate, respond to and recover from health emergencies. Here are a few things we cover:
- Community resilience: Preparing for and recovering from emergencies.
- Incident management: Coordinating an effective response.
- Information management: Making sure people have information to take action.
- Countermeasures and mitigation: Getting medicines and supplies where they are needed.
- Surge management: Working with partners to expand medical services to handle large events.
- Bio surveillance: Investigating and identifying health threats.
To cover these areas, SJBPH develops, exercises, maintains and uses public health preparedness and response strategies and plans. Let’s focus on preparedness. What happens when you don’t plan for something? Chances are greater that an emergency situation will grow out of control, and we are more likely to have negative health outcomes. There are multiple parts to being prepared. The Emergency Preparedness and Response program at SJBPH conducts annual hazard assessments with our regional partners to understand what local emergencies we may need to respond to. We then work in strategic partnerships with local and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, businesses and health care organizations to support public health preparedness, mitigation, response, recovery and resilience efforts. It benefits the entire community if we know who we should collaborate with before an emergency occurs. Next comes the development of plans to respond to these hazards in collaboration with our partners. Finally, there is training and exercising our public health preparedness and response strategies and plans.
In April, SJBPH participated in La Plata County’s wildfire exercise, exercising response plans for public health and medical needs. During the exercise, and in past wildfires, our role was to provide community guidance on evacuations, special medical and assistance needs, air quality information, and finding resources for facility evacuations. Our staff members coordinated re-entry information for evacuees, smoke advisories, air quality advisories, reopening of food establishments and pharmaceutical needs for evacuees who may have left their homes without medications. We also evaluated surge management, which is how we help patients receive the care they need during a simulated evacuation of a health care facility during a wildfire. Our goals were to improve our capacity to assess the availability of and secure access to key resources, strengthen information sharing, situational awareness and coordination, identify gaps, and become better prepared to respond to a large-scale surge in patients in our community.
Exercises like this are a great example of how the Emergency Preparedness and Response team at SJBPH and in the broader community work every day to keep our community safe and healthy – so that when disaster occurs, we are ready to respond.
Lori Zazzaro is the Emergency Preparedness and Response director for San Juan Basin Public Health. Reach her at [email protected].