RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When a big storm or other weather disaster happens, health clinics get hit like any other building. That leaves communities even more vulnerable to the effects of these events. We know these disasters are happening more often because of climate change, and they're getting more severe. So researchers are looking at how health clinics can better prepare. Sara Willa Ernst of Houston Public Media reports.
SARA WILLA ERNST, BYLINE: In the days before Hurricane Harvey back in 2017, the San Jose Clinic in Houston was on watch. The safety net clinic serves uninsured and low-income patients, and they've been through this many times before, says Dr. Adlia Ebeid, the clinic's head pharmacist.
ADLIA EBEID: We right away got into kind of hurricane preparedness mode - or what we knew of hurricane preparedness mode at the time.
ERNST: Nervous about a possible power outage, Ebeid moved medications and vaccines that needed refrigeration to their sister clinic that has a generator. They were lucky. The clinic and the medications were unscathed, but there were other problems ahead, among them, the pharmacy's weekly shipments were delayed. Ebeid scrambled, and the CEO of the supplier agreed to personally deliver the shipments.
EBEID: Actually packed his car up in the middle of the night and drove from Nashville, Tenn. And sure enough, he arrived at my house about 3 o'clock in the morning.
ERNST: Climate change is making hurricanes, floods and fires more intense, so researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health are working with Ebeid's clinic and others to craft best practices for how to prepare and react. Harvard's Ari Bernstein says it's new territory.
ARI BERNSTEIN: We looked around, both in the peer-reviewed literature and in government documents. There's no guidance here. There's nowhere for these clinics to turn for it. Even if they wanted to, there would be no information for them to pick up easily.
ERNST: Climate-related health issues could mean heat stroke due to rising temperatures or respiratory problems caused by untreated mold after flooding or smoke from wildfires. During the deadly winter storm and blackout in Texas in February, dozens suffered carbon monoxide poisoning or frostbite. And there were other health issues, says Lori Timmons, director of Riverside Dialysis Center in Houston.
LORI TIMMONS: It was a huge impact on the city because if they had power, maybe they didn't have water. If they had water, maybe they didn't have power.
ERNST: She says these conditions made it hard to stay open and keep kidney disease patients on regimen. Her center rushed in clients for last-minute treatment on the Sunday before the storm. Low-income folks and people of color are more likely to suffer from certain chronic conditions, which Ebeid, at San Jose Clinic, says puts someone at an even higher risk during a disaster.
EBEID: They would end up most likely in the hospital or the emergency room with a heart attack or a stroke. It's not something that they can go without for a very long period of time.
ERNST: Ari Bernstein from Harvard says targeted messaging will likely be one recommended best practice for clinics - arming patients before a disaster with information based on their specific condition, occupation and the resources they have at hand.
BERNSTEIN: So rather than seeing the person show up dead - oh, my goodness, we could have talked to them, saying this is not going to work - we can come up with a plan B.
ERNST: He says a lot of health problems brought on by extreme weather disasters are preventable if clinics can help patients prepare for them.
For NPR News, I'm Sara Willa Ernst in Houston.
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