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San Antonio

Bexar County forms new public health entity to serve local residents

wonderland_mall_venue.jpg
Robert Merrill
/
Wonderland of the Americas Mall is Bexar County's main mass vaccination site.

Officials with Bexar County and University Health today announced plans to establish a Public Health Division within University Health.

County Judge Nelson Wolff said it will promote health equity, acute care, preventive health care and public health emergency responses.

He said it will receive funding from the county and be under the joint oversight of the county and the hospital district.

"We will allocate up to $60 million in funding for that. We'll have an advisory committee, five appointed from the commissioner's court and four appointed from the board of managers of the hospital district," Wolff said.

University Health has long partnered with the city, the county and other health organizations respond to natural disaster and public health emergencies. The new public health division will complement services provided by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

University stepped into the role of public health when it quickly stood up COVID-19 drive-thru testing for health care workers and first responders and took a leadership role in providing the community with accurate, timely and evidence-based information on all aspects of the virus. It stepped even further into the public health realm on Jan. 4, 2021, when it opened one of the first, largest and most efficient mass COVID-19 vaccination sites in Texas, according to a county news release.

“Over the past two years, we have learned a great deal about the important role of public health experts during a worldwide pandemic, and the significant responsibility University Health has to improve the good health of our community in collaboration with the county, the city and other health care providers,” said George B. Hernández Jr., University Health president and CEO.

The new public health division will formalize and organize in large part what has already been the mission of University Health.

“More than ever, the University Health teams have seen how the tracking and analysis of key data points, the rapid mobilization of resources and effective communication efforts work together to help reduce community transmission, hospitalizations and deaths,” said Dr. Bryan Alsip, University Health chief medical officer. “These public health aspects of University Health’s mission are not new; however, we do see opportunity to organize and align these resources under this new Public Health Division to continue to improve our response and coordination to this ongoing public health emergency, and to be best prepared for the next one.”

This division will work in collaboration with key partners beyond the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, including the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, the City of San Antonio, and education and health care organizations, without duplicating services.

The Essential Public Health Services, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will serve as a framework to align existing functions, develop new services and establish priorities. The essential public health services are:

  • Assess and monitor population health status, factors that influence health, and community needs and assets
  • Investigate, diagnose, and address health problems and hazards affecting the population
  • Communicate effectively to inform and educate people about health, factors that influence it, and how to improve it
  • Strengthen, support and mobilize communities and partnerships to improve health
  • Create, champion, and implement policies, plans and laws that impact health
  • Utilize legal and regulatory actions designed to improve and protect the public’s health
  • Assure an effective system that enables equitable access to the individual services and care needed to be healthy
  • Build and support a diverse and skilled public health workforce
  • Improve and innovate public health functions through ongoing evaluation, research, and continuous quality improvement
  • Build and maintain a strong organizational infrastructure for public health

University Health’s initial efforts will focus on restructuring existing public health-related functions in a manner that enhances its commitment to population health and health equity, including:

  • An existing network of health clinics throughout Bexar County, including specialized clinics like the Teen Clinic, which focuses on the comprehensive health care needs of male and female pre-teens, teens and young adults. In public emergencies, clinic staff work with the County, the City and STRAC to address public health needs
  • A strong pharmacy network of nearly 500 FTEs that dispensed a record one million prescriptions to patients and helped administer more than 600,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine in 2021
  • A robust injury prevention program – including car seat/booster seat education and installation, gunlock distributions, bicycle helmet distributions, Stop the Bleed training, falls prevention, and more
  • An existing staff of infection prevention experts and hospital epidemiologists
  • A robust IT infrastructure that has achieved Most Wired Level 10 for both hospital and outpatient networks across the community, demonstrating optimal use of information technology. University Health is one of nine organizations to receive a level 10 designation for both hospital and outpatient networks worldwide
  • A comprehensive academic laboratory service capable of high-complexity testing, serving more than 60 point-of-care testing locations across Bexar County. Specialized services include an emerging infectious diseases identification lab, the region’s largest hospital-based microbiology lab, and the community’s only in-hospital blood bank, ensuring immediate access to lifesaving blood products in emergencies.
  • A strong communication staff that develops and disseminates accurate and accessible health information that is relevant, culturally appropriate, and effectively engages Bexar County residents through social media and mass media channels
  • A strong comprehensive grants program – including programs to benefit people with HIV/AIDS, family planning and early cancer detection. In 2021, it received a COVID-19 Vaccine Access Grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for $1 million to provide targeted outreach, education and services to areas with low COVID-19 vaccination rates throughout Bexar, Atascosa, Guadalupe and Wilson Counties
  • Trauma-informed care certification and a trauma-informed care institute providing trauma-informed training and technical assistance to other health care organizations in collaboration with the City of San Antonio
  • Four school-based health centers – offering walk-in care for students and families, as well as checkups, immunizations and health education services
  • Two mobile health units – that provide preventive health, immunization, primary care and mammography services at schools, churches, community centers and businesses across the community
  • A Health Fairs Task Force – this team attends community events throughout the year, providing education, immunizations, and preventive health services

Wolff said the primary location to serve as the administrative, research and clinical services hub for public health is the property University Health recently purchased adjacent to Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Work is underway to evaluate the site, space requirements, budget and timeline, according to a county news release.

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