Category Archives: Disasters

Nov 11 2014
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Building Back Better: New Jersey as a Case Study for Improving Preparedness

In recent years, the state of New Jersey has found itself at the center of high-profile emergencies and public health scares—from the disaster wrought by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 to a controversial plan in recent weeks to quarantine individuals identified as at risk for contracting Ebola. As the 11th-most populous state—and a major hub of international travel and commerce—New Jersey’s public health leadership serves as a case study for the nation.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with New Jersey Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd. She has been sharing New Jersey’s preparedness and recovery lessons nationally as a member of the preparedness policy committee of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and implementing them as the state addresses potential exposure to Ebola in returning volunteers.

NewPublicHealth: Looking back, what worked well in the health department’s response before, during and after Sandy?

Mary O’Dowd: I think one of the things that really worked well in that immediate response phase was that we employed our lessons learned from Hurricane Irene the year before, in 2011. For example, we used the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which is an agreement among states to assist each other in times of crisis or emergency, and we specifically used it to bring additional ambulances into New Jersey for our EMS system to enhance our capability, but we didn’t make the request until after the storm. So for the first day or two, we didn’t have the resources on hand.

We learned from that shortfall. The next year, before Sandy made its way to New Jersey, we had already put out the request via the EMAC system and had ambulances from Indiana on the ground before the storm hit. And that was really critical in our ability to immediately respond in particular with Sandy, because with the flooding we had several areas of the state where ambulances actually were flooded out and were no longer available for us. We were very lucky that we had learned that lesson from the year before. 

Watch a NewPublicHealth video about the public health response to Hurricane Sandy featurining Mary O'Dowd and other public health officials.

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Oct 27 2014
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Public Health News Roundup: October 27

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EBOLA UPDATE: New York State Walks Back New Ebola Quarantine Process—Somewhat—After Heavy Criticism
(NewPublicHealth is monitoring the public health crisis in West Africa.)
The state of New York has partially walked back its new quarantine process for health care workers returning from treating Ebola in West Africa after receiving heavy criticism from the federal government and health officials. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said health care workers who have been in contact with Ebola patients but show no signs of the virus must still be quarantined and monitored for 21 days, but may do so in their home.

The Obama administration’s criticism of the initial order was strong." We have let the governors of New York, New Jersey, and others states know that we have concerns with the unintended consequences of policies not grounded in science may have on efforts to combat Ebola at its source in West Africa," an Obama administration official said in a statement, according to Reuters. "We have also let these states know that we are working on new guidelines for returning healthcare workers that will protect the American people against imported cases, while, at the same time, enabling us to continue to tackle this epidemic in West Africa.” Read more on Ebola.

Survey: ‘Social Resilience’ More Valuable than Government Assistance in Helping a Community Feel Prepared for Disasters
“Social resilience”—the feeling of trust in a community, with neighbors helping neighbors and looking out for each other—can be more valuable than even government assistance when it comes to how prepared communities feel for disasters, according to a new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey. In a survey of more than 1,000 residents in a dozen communities hit by the 2012 hurricane in New York and New Jersey, researchers found that “residents in areas where people say their neighbors actively seek to fix problems in the neighborhood are three times more likely to say their community is extremely or very prepared for a disaster than people in communities without such social resilience.”

Among the rest of the findings:

  • 37 percent of residents in areas reporting high levels of neighbors helping each other are very or extremely confident their neighborhood would recover quickly from a disaster, compared to 22 percent in areas with lower levels of neighborly cooperation
  • 69 percent of respondents said they got help from neighbors in recovering from the storm, while 57 percent said local government assisted them and 55 percent cited federal government agencies as helpful

“Having that level of trust, that preexisting level of trust means you sort of have this reservoir to draw from in times of need,” said the survey’s principal researcher Kathleen Cagney, a University of Chicago sociology professor and director of the Population Research Center at NORC at the University of Chicago. “Money doesn’t buy these informal reservoirs. You need to foster this.” Read more on preparedness.

Tips on Warding Off Seasonal Affective Disorder
The shorter, darker days of the fall season also mean the potential to trigger seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that can leave some people feeling overly tired and lacking motivation to the point they find it extremely difficult to go about their day. As much as 5 percent of the population is affected by what is believed to be a chemical imbalance linked to reduced exposure to light. Angelos Halaris, MD, PhD, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Loyola University Chicago Stitch School of Medicine, said there are ways to reduce the likelihood of SAD, which can severely impact an individual’s quality of life:

  • Spend at least 30 minutes a day outside. Avoid wearing sunglasses during this period of time. If weather permits, expose the skin on your arms to the sun.
  • Keep your home well-lit. Open curtain and blinds to allow sunlight in. You can also consider buying a high-intensity light box specially designed for SAD therapy. Sit near the box for 30 to 45 minutes in the morning and at night. Be sure to talk to your doctor before attempting this type of light therapy on your own.
  • Physical activity releases endorphins and other brain chemicals that help you feel better and gain more energy. Exercising for 30 minutes daily can help.
  • When all else fails, there are medications that can help ease the troubling effects of SAD. Halaris recommends visiting a mental health professional if extra sun exposure, indoor lights and exercise are not effective in treating your symptoms.

Read more on prevention.

Oct 16 2014
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Faces of Public Health: Jim Blumenstock, ASTHO

People tuning into news coverage of the Dallas Ebola cases have come to recognize David Lakey, the Texas state health officer. Every state has a similar position and those officials are charged with improving population health—from holding immunization clinics to responding to potentially fatal illnesses. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officers (ASTHO) is the professional association of the 50 state health officers. Jim Blumenstock is the chief program officer of ASTHO’s public health practice division. NewPublicHealth spoke to Blumenstock this week about state and federal coordination on Ebola detection and case treatment.

NewPublicHealth: What is ASTHO’s role in dealing with preparedness for Ebola in the United States and with the current cases?

Jim Blumenstock: In a crisis or a public health emergency like we’re experiencing with Ebola, ASTHO’s role principally is to do two things. Number one is to sort of be the glue or the hub that helps pull together the 50 states, the nine territories and the District of Columbia as an integrated, harmonious component of our public health infrastructure. The second feature is to provide a solid interface between federal efforts and state efforts. So, that’s our role with any significant public health issue.

During the H1N1 outbreak several years ago, both ASTHO and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) had key staff embedded in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Emergency Operation Center because it was recognized that the value of the insight of a national organization that represents all the states and locals was so critical to the federal planning and response process. That was the first time it was done.

We’re on standby to do it and we’re sort of functioning in that capacity right now, but sort of in a virtual or remote area. For example, I’m not today embedded in CDC’s Emergency Operation Center. However, I would say I’m on the phone with them at least six to eight times a day—including last evening—and have had email exchanges already this morning, not only to get information, but also to be part of some planning and problem solving efforts they’ve requested our help on, or a request for our help on state consensus around a strategy or a tactic or an approach on a particular matter.

And our other critical roles are to help our members; to talk to federal public health officials; and to educate and inform the public. 

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Sep 18 2014
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Public Health News Roundup: September 18

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EBOLA UPDATE: Death Toll to at Least 2,622
(NewPublicHealth is monitoring the public health crisis in West Africa.)
The World Health Organization announced today that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has now claimed at least 2,622 lives and infected at least 5,335 people. "The upward epidemic trend continues in the three countries that have widespread and intense transmission—Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone," the global health agency said in a statement, adding that the disease’s spread through Liberia is in large part due to an increasing number of cases in the capital of Monrovia. Read more on Ebola.

HHS to Sponsor the Development of a Portable Ventilator for Use in Public Health Emergencies
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is sponsoring the development of a next-generation portable ventilator for use in pandemics and other public health emergencies. The low-cost, user-friendly device will be developed with Philips Respironics under a $13.8 million contract; the project will be overseen by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) within the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. “In pandemics and other emergencies, doctors must have medicines, vaccines, diagnostics, and critical equipment such as mechanical ventilators at the ready in order to save lives,” said BARDA Director Robin Robinson, PhD, in a release. Read more on preparedness.

HUD Launches $1B National Disaster Resilience Competition
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is launching a $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition to help state, local and tribal leaders prepare their communities for the impacts of climate change and other factors using federal funds. “The National Disaster Resilience Competition is going to help communities that have been devastated by natural disasters build back stronger and better prepared for the future,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro, in a release. “This competition will help spur innovation, creatively distribute limited federal resources, and help communities across the country cope with the reality of severe weather that is being made worse by climate change.” Read more on disasters.

Sep 2 2014
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Public Health Campaign of the Month: Know Where to Meet Your Family in an Emergency

NewPublicHealth continues a new series to highlight some of the best public health education and outreach campaigns every month. Submit your ideas for Public Health Campaign of the Month to info@newpublichealth.org.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is starting off National Preparedness Month with a series of stark, dark and attention-getting public service advertisements (PSAs) developed in cooperation with the Ad Council. They are set in what looks to be a dark, crowded school auditorium and showcase an intact family sheltering from the storm, and another family unable to locate their son. The obvious focus is on making a plan to know where all family members are when disaster strikes, but the auditorium—with too few chairs, no apparent cots and little room to move or stretch—gives a rare glimpse into what a public shelter looks like during an emergency and adds to the urgency of making that plan.

“The first step to preparing for disasters is simple and it’s free—talk to your family and make a plan,” said Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator. “Do you know how you’ll reunite and communicate with your family during an emergency? Through our continued partnership with the Ad Council, this year’s campaign illustrates how making a plan can keep families together and safe during a disaster.”

According to a recently released FEMA survey, 50 percent of Americans have not discussed or developed an emergency plan for family members about where to go and what to do in the event of a local disaster.

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Aug 4 2014
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Public Health News Roundup: August 4

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EBOLA UPDATE: Nigeria Confirms Second Ebola Case
(NewPublicHealth is monitoring the public health crisis in West Africa.)
Nigeria today confirmed its second case of Ebola amidst an epidemic that has so far killed more than 700 people in West Africa. Liberia has also ordered the cremation of all bodies of people who die from Ebola, in response to communities concerned over having the bodies buried nearby. However, even as the virus continues to spread in West Africa, Anthony S. Fauci, MD, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has told NBC that the risk posed by the return of the Ebola-infected health workers to the United States is "infinitesimally small.” The second U.S. patient is scheduled to arrive for treatment tomorrow. Read more on infectious disease.

HHS: New Committee to Advise on Children’s Health During Disasters
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced the formation of a new federal committee to advise on children’s health issues during natural and manmade disasters. The National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters’ contributions will include comprehensive planning and policies to meet kids’ health needs before, during and after disasters and other public health emergencies. The committee, formed under the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013, includes 15 members selected from 82 nominations. Seven are from outside the federal government and 8 are from within (the full list is available here). "Ensuring the safety and well-being of our nation's children in the wake of disasters is vital to building resilience in every community,” said HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell, in a release. “We look forward to working with the committee toward this common goal." Read more on disasters.

Toledo Lifts Ban on Drinking Water; 400,000 Residents Affected Over the Weekend
The town of Toledo, Ohio, has lifted the ban on drinking water implemented over the weekend after dangerously high levels of algae were found in Lake Erie. The Great Lake provides much of the area’s drinking water. Approximately 400,000 residents were affected by the ban. Read more on water and air quality.

Jul 1 2014
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Public Health News Roundup: July 1

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Study: New Requirements Needed for Hand Hygiene for Anesthesia Providers
Anesthesia providers frequently miss identified opportunities to clean their hands during surgical procedures, with the points immediately before patient contact and immediately after contact with the patient’s environment the times when they are least likely to practice proper hand hygiene, according to a new study in the American Journal of Infection Control. However, the findings also point to a larger problem: Complete compliance with all hand hygiene guidelines would take so much time that there would be no time to actually perform any procedures. The findings indicate “a need to create more practical—but still effective—methods of controlling bacterial transmission in anesthesia work environments.” Read more on prevention.

HHS: $840M to Help State, Local Agencies Improve Disaster Preparedness
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has awarded approximately $840 million in grants to help state and local public health and health care systems improve their emergency response preparedness. Distributed through the Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) and the Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) program, the funds will ensure that communities are prepared to respond to an array of emergencies, including infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters, or chemical, biological, or radiological nuclear events. “Community and state preparedness is essential to the health security of all Americans,” said Nicole Lurie, MD, assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR), in a release. “Events in the last few years have demonstrated how critical it is for health systems across the country to be ready and able to respond quickly and effectively.” Read more on disasters.

ACP: Annual Pelvic Exams Not Needed for Asymptomatic Women
Annual pelvic exams for women do more harm than good and should not be a routine part of health care for women who are not pregnant or who show no other signs of pelvic problems, according to new guidelines from the American College of Physicians (ACP). In a review, researchers found no studies on the effectiveness of pelvic exams in identifying cancers, infections and other health issues that they are commonly used to find. Researchers stressed that their findings only apply to pelvic exams and that women should still undergo recommended cervical cancer screening. Read more on prevention.

 

Jun 6 2014
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Averting Disaster with a Pillowcase

During Hurricane Katrina, volunteers at American Red Cross shelters in the Gulf region noticed a pattern among some of the young children settling in as the storm began: They had brought pillowcases from home filled with some of their most precious items, such as a favorite book or a devoted stuffed animal. Other volunteers learned that evacuating college students also carried their belongings in pillowcases.

Following the storm, chapters along the Gulf launched a pilot called the “Pillowcase Project” that earlier this year became a national program of the American Red Cross, sponsored by the Walt Disney Company. Chapters across the country and in several pilot countries are now adapting the project to teach preparedness to children in grades 3 to 5 at school, after school and in camp settings.

file Courtesy: American Red Cross

“We’re working hard to get kids involved in preparedness,” said Jim Judge, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council. Judge said getting kids involved helps dispel some of the fear they may face as they evacuate to avoid a disaster, “but we’ve also found that if you get the kids involved, often times they go home and get the parents involved [as well].”

But why a pillowcase? “Just about every home has a pillowcase, it’s inexpensive, you can decorate it and it’s a simplified way of getting kids involved,” he said.

In the pilot programs, kids get the pillowcases and supplies such as a mini first-aid kit, a glow stick, an activity book and crayons, all of which they use to start their own personalized disaster kit and preparedness plan. As part of the program, they learn about the types of emergencies that can impact their community and then they do a physical activity—such as leaving the building—to reinforce what they’ve learned. Afterward they talk about the lessons in small discussion groups.

“The hands-on activities will also help to build confidence so that kids are prepared to take action during an emergency,” said Francisco Ianni, who oversees Red Cross youth readiness programs throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington State.

>>Bonus Link: Watch a pillowcase presentation to a group of young students 

Jun 5 2014
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Building Disaster-Resistant Communities

One of the key lessons of Hurricane Sandy—which caused massive destruction in New York and New Jersey, two states that don’t usually see that kind of weather devastation—is that disasters can strike anywhere. That’s the thinking behind a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Designing for Disaster, which brings together objects, video, photos and interactive components to show that policies, plans and designs can result in safer, more disaster-resilient communities.

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A key goal of the exhibit is to share ideas for building and rebuilding. In a recent interview posted on the museum’s website, the exhibit’s curator, Chrysanthe Broikos, asks “as we face an increasing number of destructive and deadly natural disasters...should we have the right to build exactly what we want, where we want, no matter the risks? Should we give more thought to the long-term viability and protection of the structures and communities we build?”

Those are policy discussions underway right now, and some suggestions are being shared in a “disaster mitigation” blog launched  to complement the exhibit. The blog invites building and disaster experts to post their ideas and thoughts on how to make us all more disaster-resilient.

The exhibit highlights current work by planners, engineers, designers, emergency managers, scientists, environmentalists, business leaders and community leaders, some viewable in a short video on the exhibit. For example, constructed just for the exhibit is a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “safe room” that would be highly protective if a tornado struck. But the exhibit asks the necessary questions, as well. For example: What if requiring safer construction makes housing unaffordable for many?

While many of the exhibit designs are experimental, the museum’s website also offers resources to learn about steps individuals can take in their own homes and communities to prepare for disasters, remain safe and prevent damage. FloodSmart, for example, is a FEMA resource which lets users see how much damage flooding can cause, assess flood risk and learn about flood insurance.

>>Bonus Link: On June 24, the National Building Museum will hold a competition, Rebuild by Design, that challenges contestants to envision rebuilding designs for communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. 

Jun 4 2014
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Road to Recovery After Disaster: Q&A with Alonzo Plough

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Recovery after a disaster can take years or even decades—but what most people don’t realize is that recovery starts even before the disaster occurs. Resilience is about how quickly a community bounces back to where they were before a public health emergency—and only a healthy community can do that effectively.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Alonzo Plough, PhD, MPH, Vice President, Research-Evaluation-Learning and Chief Science Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about taking steps toward recovery even before a disaster occurs.

NewPublicHealth: What are some important aspects of preparedness that help prepare responders and the community for recovery from a disaster?

Alonzo Plough: Connectivity between organizations, between neighbors, between communities and formal responder organizations is absolutely critical to building community disaster resilience. This allows recovery to go more smoothly because the partners who have to work together in recovery have been working together and connecting to communities prior to a disaster event. Managing the long tail of recovery is easier if there has been recovery thinking in the preparedness phase.

NPH: One of the issues for the panel at the recent Preparedness Summit is the impact of the news spotlight when a disaster occurs, and then the impact of that spotlight turning off. How does that focus impact recovery?

Plough: Often the initial media frames are to wonder why there weren’t preventive mechanisms. In the case of the mudslides in Washington State, for example, why weren’t there zoning restrictions or regulatory restrictions? That initial media frame often will point a finger to ask why houses were allowed to be built in an at-risk location. Why were building permits given at all?

But none of that really addresses the long-term issues of communities working toward recovery, regardless of the specific event. There is a disruption of life as people know it in a disaster that goes on for a long, long period of time. The media doesn’t really capture the complexity of that while they’re focused on the short-term outcomes. When the media focus goes away, the appropriate agencies and organizations who need to be engaged continue their engagement.

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