When Hurricane Katrina hit, Jennifer Fix instantly knew she wanted to help.

Fix, an associate professor of pharmacotherapy at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, and her husband traveled to New Orleans early September in 2005, but were turned away because they were told they needed particular training to volunteer.

With SaferCare Texas, UNT HSC’s patient-safety focused department, Fix is finally getting the training she needed. In late June SaferCare hosted a state emergency preparedness and collaborative response training to help integrate community health workers, like Fix, into preparedness and response teams and other social work activities around Texas.

Though Fix does work in healthcare, anyone can be a community health worker.

“I’ve always had it in my heart to try to help,” Fix said. “I needed to do the training to go to the next step of actually being able to.”

Timing is urgent

Teresa Wagner, SaferCare’s interim director, said the timing of the training couldn’t have been more urgent.

In 2022, Texas ranked second in the U.S. in the highest number of tornadoes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. A recent tornado in Perryton, a small town in the Panhandle, killed three people, damaged 200 homes and hit the fire department.

Wagner hopes this program will help communities like Perryton, where local response resources can be scarce.

“The completed program prepares community health workers to become a deployable asset within Texas during a state of emergency,” Wagner said. “Deploying them to assist vulnerable communities during a time of mass disruption was demonstrated to be an effective strategy during the coronavirus and this initiative formalizes that process.”

Assisting vulnerable adults in Tarrant County

The training included aspects like assisting community health workers in finding nearby resources and helping define what their role may be when emergency strikes, depending on the worker’s professional field.

For Fix, who works in the world of healthcare and medications, that could mean connecting patients to resources for prescriptions or other medical care, she said.

Fix and Eugene Barnard, a Keller ISD emergency planning coordinator, learned which Tarrant County ZIP codes are underserved by community health workers in the training.

The first heat-map showed ZIP codes with high or low rates of vulnerable adults, or those aged 60 and older who live by themselves. A second-heat map showed ZIP codes with high or low rates of community health workers.

The two heat-maps were then overlaid, showing participants where the most help is needed in Tarrant County.

“The part about the vulnerable adults, that was one of the more important things,” 71-year-old Barnard, a former Coast Guardsman, said. “You need people to actually knock on doors and say, ‘Hey, you need a mask, you need a shot, here’s where you can go get your shot.’” 

Denise Hernandez, the executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth Community Health Worker Association, led the initiative on behalf of the Texas Association of Promatores and Community Health Workers.

The heatmaps were meant to leave a lasting impression on participants, but they still don’t tell the whole story, she said. The maps covered only vulnerable adults.

“Imagine what we can do with the homeless and those with disabilities. There are still many areas for outreach and growth,” Hernandez said.

Bridge the gap

Hernandez hopes the newly certified participants are able, willing and confident to step into emergency zones and provide residents with the help they need.

Participants who completed the training and Federal Emergency Management Agency lessons will have their information provided to preparedness and response officials, such as the Tarrant County government and smaller community emergency response teams. 

Hernandez, who has been dedicated to community health since 2013, possesses a deep understanding of the critical role that social work plays in emergency management, she said. She emphasized the need to bridge a gap between affected communities and available resources.

“Oftentimes it takes a little while to get a response from the local health department or from the state,” Hernandez said. “So just making sure someone who knows the community can provide that knowledge about what’s needed immediately, as well as the resources that are available … that’s necessary.”

Matthew Sgroi is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at matthew.sgroi@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Matthew Sgroi is the 2022-23 Fort Worth Report multimedia fellow. He can be reached at matthew.sgroi@fortworthreport.com or (503)-828-4063. Sgroi is a current senior at Texas Christian University, majoring...