New Bexar County Health Department will focus on access and education

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, Bexar County will establish a new department that consolidates its existing public health-related functions and aims to increase access to health care.

The Bexar County Court of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved the new Department of Preventive Health and Environmental Services, which is expected to launch later this year using at least $2 million in federal disaster relief funds. of pandemic.

That money will be used for preventative health services and health education, as well as closer coordination with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and the new Public Health Division of University Health Systems, the county executive said. , David Smith, to the Commissioners.

“I don’t want to duplicate a lot of things that are done by these two divisions,” Smith said.

The department will include more than a dozen existing county programs and services such as diabetes prevention, opioid overdose prevention, air quality, food and nutrition, animal control, mental and behavioral health, asthma control education for young people and containment of hazardous waste, he said. that before the next pandemic, “we can have a more robust, rapid and coordinated response”.

Anyone sitting in Judge Nelson Wolff’s chair at that time, Smith continued, “will be able to … make a phone call and get things done faster.”

The county will hire a director of public health to oversee the new department as well as a nutrition specialist and dietician to inform needed services and messaging throughout the county, Smith said.

“I can’t tell you how frustrating it was for me in the early months of COVID not having information, not having the expertise of staff,” Wolff said.

Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said he would like to see the department focus on the social determinants of health, such as housing, education, infrastructure and racism.

“The court has yet to make any connections as to how these should be driven by funding for a public health division,” Calvert said.

Once the department is established, it can grow and evolve as needed, Smith said.

“It’s just the beginning,” Smith said. “If we need additional resources…we will direct those requests to you. »

Smith acknowledged that the county’s current efforts “are not leading to equitable health outcomes,” noting that chronic health conditions and deaths from COVID-19 continue to disproportionately impact low-income neighborhoods.

“I wish that as a society we could just move away from this distinction between physical health and mental health,” he said. “They’re all one package, it’s all about wellness, period. And so often one will lead to the other and vice versa. So it will be something to work on.

The new department should conduct a long-term health education campaign, Wolff said.

“If we could ever get ahead of the prevention measures, to try to get there before someone gets really sick with some of these underlying issues, I think we can be very successful in save people,” Wolff said. “There really hasn’t been, in my view, an aggressive outreach program.”

Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) said the department should develop relationships with local churches and nonprofits, which have been pivotal in providing information and resources during the pandemic. .

“In the middle of a pandemic, it’s too late to build relationships,” she said.