When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, a team of University of Texas School of Public Health students with the Student Epidemic Intelligence Society (SEIS) quickly launched into action to conduct disease surveillance at area shelters.
They were ready. Over the summer, the organization’s leadership worked aggressively to strengthen relationships with local health departments. They offered their support during emergencies, as they had nearly 12 years earlier when Hurricane Katrina evacuees sheltered in Houston.
“Our response to Katrina is kind of legendary among students,” says Ms. Lauren Leining, the organization’s president and a second-year MPH student studying epidemiology. “We had a huge presence doing disease surveillance at Reliant Park and the Astrodome.”
The team started work on Thursday, Aug. 31, at NRG Center and Friday, September 1, at the George R. Brown Convention Center. They conducted cot-based surveillance, using their own Google Docs survey, at the George R. Brown and supported the Harris County Health Department at NRG Center. In all, about 125 people volunteered.
The survey asked for the evacuees’ zip codes, ages, symptoms of illness, and immediate personal needs. It could change from day to day depending on what the city needed to know.
Each evening, about 20 to 30 SEIS volunteers gathered at the George R. Brown for a quick briefing on shelter rules and issues, and then fanned out among the three halls in the massive convention center to survey shelter residents. At the peak of the storm, the convention center housed between 9,000 and 10,000 residents. SEIS volunteers surveyed an estimated 500 – 700 people a night, Ms. Leining says.
Volunteers accessed the survey on their phones, and each survey was timestamped, allowing shelter officials to give real time updates and request health services teams.
“Their surveillance was helpful because it rounded out our awareness of what was going on in the shelter,” says Kirstin Short, bureau chief of epidemiology at the Houston Health Department, who oversaw relief efforts at the George R. Brown. “It gave us a deeper look into the health of the community.”
The survey found that up to a third of shelter residents were homeless prior to the storm — helping shelter officials bring in the right level of services targeting the homeless population.
Feedback from SEIS volunteers also helped improve shelter operations. The Red Cross designated a special space for families and children, after learning single families had safety concerns, and they kept dinner lines open longer, when they discovered that the line closed while people were still waiting. When they found that diabetics were having a difficult time maintaining their blood sugar, they added a snack line for diabetics. The health services team also began checking on patients with mobility problems at the bedside, rather than sending them to the clinic at the opposite end of the shelter.
“We all had an itch to get involved with Hurricane Harvey,” Ms. Leining says. We are very grateful to have a way to do that that blends our career with relief efforts.”