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Health & Wellness

'Cascading Disasters' Stress Smaller North Texas Counties

A medical worker retrieves a syringe of COVID-19 vaccine from a cooler.
David J. Phillip
/
AP
Several smaller North Texas counties are struggling to keep up with emergencies during the pandemic. “We have done more with health-related issues in our office then we ever really knew we could," said Steve Howie, emergency management coordinator for Kaufman County.

While COVID-19 cases are slightly decreasing across North Texas, smaller counties across the region have had to contend with a COVID surge, changing state policies and any other emergencies coming up in the last few months.

UT Southwestern Medical Center’s latest forecasting reports hospital admissions across North Texas are still high, putting added strain on “the collective capacity of regional health systems.”

Kaufman County Is Focused On Vaccinations, COVID-19 Education

It’s a strain Steve Howie knows well. He’s the emergency management coordinator for Kaufman County, which has a little over 136,000 people.

“Since the inception of this pandemic, or epidemic, whatever we're calling it these days, things have not been normal here,” Howie said. “We have done more with health-related issues in our office then we ever really knew we could.”

Howie said “two and a half” people manage the county response to COVID: him, a deputy coordinator and a part-time administrative assistant. Since last March, they’ve picked up every phone call and answered every email to help community members understand the public health crisis.

”People are worried about the vaccines because right now only Pfizer has full authorization,” Howie said. “We try to read the research that is out, so we can talk authoritatively to the people that give us calls to find out information."

Like many counties across the state, Howie said Kaufman County saw an uptick in cases around July, although it was slower than other places in the region. He said the one hospital in the county, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Kaufman, has been hit hard. He’s focused now on increasing the vaccination rate. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, more than 50% of eligible people in Kaufman County are fully vaccinated.

“I’d love for it to be more in our county,” Howie said. “I’d like to see us get up to 70% or better if we can, but a lot of that’s educating the public and getting them to come and take the vaccines.”

Wise County Has Managed “Cascading Disasters” Over The Past Year And A Half

For Cody Powell, the emergency management coordinator for Wise County, there’s a lot to coordinate even without a pandemic.

“We're really busy when there's nothing going on,” Powell said. “That's probably the most common misconception about emergency management in general, is there's an assumption that if there's no emergency that you don't have anything to do. And that's definitely not true.”

Early last year, Powell said he had one person with him in his office managing the county’s COVID response. They added another person to the team a few months in to help answer questions and share information with the county’s almost 70,000 residents.

In 2021 so far, Powell said the team responded to the flooding, the winter storm, and the hurricane season. Now they’re preparing for the wildfire season.

“There's no break,” Powell said. “It's one thing after another. When one disaster ends, then [we’re] going back to managing the one that was already still there.”

He’s concerned about burnout. He’s seen emergency management coordinators leave over the past year-plus, and it’s a huge loss to the region.

Right now, he’s focused on staying up to date with changing federal and state orders to make sure the county is in compliance. The emergency management department helps businesses and local organizations administer state orders on the local level.

Statewide, Gov. Greg Abbott recently announced the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is getting up to $5 million in federal funding to improve rural hospital care. Counties can apply for these funds for increased staffing, telehealth equipment and new training. Currently, North Texas counties including Wichita, Brown, Dawson, Haskell and Young can apply for the funds, but other counties could become eligible depending on funding.

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at erivera@kera.org. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

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