Hurricane Sandy Recovery: New Jersey’s Health Commissioner Helms Response Roundtable

Nov 21, 2012, 9:55 AM

file (From left to right) Nicole Lurie, HHS; N.J. Commissioner of Health Mary E. O'Dowd; John K. Lloyd, Meridian Health; and Robert L. Sweeney, D.O., Meridian Health

Just two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit, the State of New Jersey held a Response Roundtable at the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune Township, N.J., to begin a review of the health department’s response to the storm. The site was an appropriate one: in the first few days of the Sandy, the medical center’s emergency room treated close to 2,000 patients with storm-related medical and mental health emergencies. A key roundtable participant was Nicole Lurie, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. Leading the discussion was New Jersey’s Health Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd.

Critical responses by the health department have included:

  • A Department of Health hotline, opened within days of the storm, and staffed with public health experts who answer questions on mold cleanup, food safety, and drinking water concerns. The public can reach the hotline either through the state's 2-1-1 system or by calling 1-866-234-0964. 
  • The New Jersey Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is coordinating statewide efforts to help individuals and communities manage the emotional impact of the storm, and offers assistance through a toll-free Disaster Mental Health Helpline: 1-877-294-HELP (4357); a TTY line is available for persons who are deaf and hearing impaired at 1-877-294-4356.
  • The New Jersey Medical Reserve Corps (NJMRC) program is comprised of health care professionals and community health volunteers from across the state. "In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Department has received many inquiries from people looking to volunteer in New Jersey's response and recovery efforts," says O'Dowd. Every county is the state has at least one MRC unit, and all 25 NJMRC units have been active during the response and recovery efforts, according to O’Dowd. Volunteers have been serving at shelters across the state, have helped staff hotlines and have distributed food and water in local communities. New Jersey was the first state to have an MRC in every county. 
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) approved the New Jersey health department’s request to ensure access to prescription medications to uninsured residents affected by the storm through its Emergency Prescription Assistance Program.  The program provides access, at any enrolled pharmacy, to necessary prescription drugs and some medical equipment for individuals in a federally-identified disaster area who don’t have health insurance.
  • The Department has also assisted local and county health departments who were impacted by the storm. Many health department offices and facilities faced flooding, power outages, water shortages, wastewater concerns and communication difficulties. The state health department’s field staff has assisted with, among other issues, shelter and retail food inspections, in the weeks after the storm. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.