Public Health Heroes: From Code Red to Zika, the Emergency Preparedness and Response Team Has a Plan
Friday Jul 14th, 2017
While most of us do not spend our days preoccupied with the details of a wide-spread disease outbreak or medical transportation services during a large winter storm, there is a small group of seven staff at BCHD who does. The Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (OPHPR) plan and train throughout the year for a wide-range of potential public health emergencies.
OPHPR Director Jennifer Martin (eight years at BCHD), explained that as the summer months warm up, the team has been preparing for the potential for extremely hot weather during Code Red Season. OPHPR conducts daily weather monitoring and springs into action when the Commissioner of Health declares Code Red days, when the heat index is expected to reach 105F degrees. A Code Red declaration initiates multi-agency collaboration to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are assisted through the extreme weather.
While heat in the summer is a major health concern, OPHPR explained that they also do not get any “snow days” in emergency preparedness. Shannon Snyder (four years at BCHD) and Sako Narita (two years at BCHD) recalled working long shifts over four days in the Emergency Operations Center during Winter Storm Jonas in 2016. Everything in the city was shut down because it was too dangerous for people to be outside. Assistant Director, Kimberly Eschleman, recalled Winter Storm Jonas as her first response at BCHD because she began working at BCHD shortly before the storm dumped record-breaking levels of snowfall. The staff spent hours coordinating city agency response, communicating with hospitals, and arranging medical treatment transportation for patients needing dialysis centers and hospitals services through BCHD Field Health Services, Baltimore Fire Department, and the National Guard. OPHPR staff also prepared other divisions in BCHD to prepare for the storm, such as with Aging and CARE services to ensure that seniors had access to meals.
Extreme weather is not the only public health emergency that the team is ready to tackle. Jennifer Thompson (four years with BHCD) recanted a story about OPHPR’s role during the April 2015 unrest in Baltimore when some pharmacies were shut down in part of the city. OPHPR deployed volunteers (even on the weekends) to churches and senior centers to spread information about getting prescriptions and medications to those who were unable to visit their pharmacy. Amy Rappole (six months with BCHD) spoke of another instance when the OPHPR staff responded to assist after a fire at Lanvale Towers in April 2017. The team helped find temporary safe shelfter for pets, which greatly helped the emotional wellbeing of both the residents and their animals.
Public health preparedness staff also work in other urgent scenarios, like working behind the scenes in planning Zika Strike Teams and assembling Zika Preparedness Kits for community outreach. The OPHPR staff coordinates efforts during a disease outbreak, such as H1N1 and influenza, with Point of Dispensing (POD) locations throughout the city that provide immunizations or medication during a wide-spread public health disease outbreak.
Bridget Wright (ten years at BCHD) is BCHD’s OPHPR Community Outreach Coordinator. She spends most of her time outside of the office and in the community at events to spread preparedness and response information at schools, churches, senior centers, and other community spaces. Sometimes she teaches young children about the importance of handwashing and at other events she helps organizations create their preparedness plans and gives them emergency radios and flashlights.
The entire OPHPR team works together to ensure that Baltimore is ready for any public health emergency. Director Martin explained that OPHPR is four main categories: planning, training and exercise, public outreach and education, and biosurveillance. Throughout the year, the staff implements many training exercises for BCHD staff and other city agencies. In May 2017, OPHPR hosted a POD exercise for a mock anthrax outbreak. Baltimore City Parks and Recreation and Baltimore Police Department staff participated to learn how to implement the POD practices if a real outbreak occurred.
The team also conducts biosurveillance for Code Blue and Code Red to know the number of hypothermia and hyperthermia deaths reported from emergency department and EMS tracking, and includes weather surveillance during extreme cold and hot seasons. OPHPR also evaluates hospital records with specific algorithms that track syndromes to look for disease trends over time, such as the flu or chicken pox, to flag clusters of disease. Then, they work with the Acute Communicable Disease team or the vaccination team for proper-follow up to ensure the safety and health of residents.
Thank you to the entire OPHPR staff for all the hard work you do to protect and save lives in Baltimore City!