At a Texas Tribune event Thursday, state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place; Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation; and Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, discussed the health care challenges presented by Hurricane Harvey — and the long road ahead for the Houston area.
Some health impacts have yet to be seen. Citing statistics gathered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Davis noted that some of the worst health impacts of the storm are only starting to emerge. Cases of West Nile virus, a mosquito-carried illness, doubled a year after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Davis said. And the need for mental health services peaked a full 18 months after the storm. Public officials and health providers should remain vigilant for such challenges, she said.
“If we don’t get ahead of this now, you do have an increase in mosquito-born diseases,” Shah added.
Health care services during Harvey were excellent … for the people who could access them. Both Shah and Marks emphasized that the medical services available during the storm were high-quality, partially because community providers have had so much experience offering care during natural disasters. Less than 10 percent of Harris County’s medical centers were shut down or evacuated during the storm, Shah said.
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"The way that this community has improved its ability to withstand storms in terms of health care delivery is remarkable," Marks said. "We are really good at disasters.”
But those services were available only to the people who could make it to medical centers — and many people could not, because of unprecedented flood levels and other infrastructure challenges.
But there is work to be done in the future, and prevention remains the key. Medical services were effective — even stellar — during the storm, but comprehensive public health prevention efforts would have a vast positive impact, the medical professionals on the panel emphasized. Too often, funding is allocated to medical services that treat people when they are sick; the far superior approach, they said, is to prevent illnesses through public health programs. Marks said she hopes the storm will serve as a “wake-up call” about the need to ramp up public health spending in the area.
“We’ll keep on patting ourselves on the back that we got through Harvey,” Marks said. “But then there’s everything else.”