Q/A with Celeste Philip, MD, MPH Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health


This was published in Ready or Not? 2017.

TFAH: What are state public health responsibilities before a storm?

Dr. Philip: The Florida Department of Health (DOH) is designated as the lead agency for State Emergency Support Function 8 (EFS8), health and medical services. DOH coordinates the availability and staffing of special needs shelters; supports patient evacuation; ensures the safety of food and drugs; provide critical incident stress debriefing; and provides surveillance and control of radiological, chemical, biological and other environmental hazards.

DOH administers two statewide preparedness grants to build local capacity within the public health and health care community. The federal Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) grant supports all 67 county health departments (CHD) and public health laboratories in developing community preparedness, epidemiological surveillance and investigation, and medical countermeasure delivery. The Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP) funds 10 health care coalitions to build capabilities for medical surge, continuity of health care delivery, and preparedness partnerships among local health care partners.

TFAH: What are state public health responsibilities after a storm?

Dr. Philip: ESF8 assesses and stabilizes the public health and medical system; supports the ongoing sheltering of persons with special medical needs; coordinates patient movement and evacuations of health care facilities; conducts public health messaging; monitors, investigates and controls any threats to human health; and coordinates disaster behavioral health services with a sister agency.

During Hurricane Irma, ESF8 assisted with 76 patient movement missions that supported the transport of hospital, skilled nursing facility and assisted living facility clients. We conducted more than 1,000 post-impact facility inspections and more than 2,600 tests of public and private water systems and operated 113 special needs shelters.

TFAH: How do state health departments coordinate the public health response to a major storm?

Dr. Philip: Preparedness and response are driven by local leadership, personnel and assets. In Florida, each CHD coordinates and works directly with their local Emergency Management to meet the preparedness and response needs of their community. If the county Emergency Operations Center (EOC) cannot meet the local need, they request assistance through the state EOC via a web-based system that allows us to track and ensure completion of mission requests.

Based on these mission requests, the state ESF8 assesses regional and state assets. If the requested resources are not available in-state, ESF8 next looks to resources available from other states through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), or, in the case of a declared state of emergency, potential federal assets such as Disaster Medical Assistant Teams.

TFAH: Why are federal investments in public health critical on an ongoing basis?

Dr. Philip: During a major event, we are often shoulder-to-shoulder with our federal partners in the state EOC.  This includes representatives from HHS, ASPR, and also FEMA who help to coordinate any requests we make for federal assistance.

Federal investment is critical for building a public health infrastructure that has the capacity to prepare for and recover from weather and other hazardous situations. If states are better prepared to respond, requests for federal assistance may be lessened.  With the close succession of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and wildfires in California, federal response agencies had to sustain their efforts across time and location which may not be feasible in the future.

TFAH: What federal programs and supports are critical for preparedness and response?

Dr. Philip: Both the PHEP and HPP statewide preparedness grants are important for public health preparedness and response. Preparedness programs in various HHS agencies hold meetings that provide training and networking opportunities for states.

TFAH: What is needed from the federal government to improve preparedness and response?

Dr. Philip: Knowing and having a relationship with our federal counterparts that will be deployed to the state EOC improves communication and manages expectations more effectively. A federal system that allows for tracking of deployed assets would improve situational awareness and real-time decision-making.

Better coordination of credentialing health care professionals between states would be helpful for patients who evacuate with their provider and for providers coming into disaster areas.

Streamlined and flexible funding to allow for nimble response as needed would greatly enhance public health’s ability to be effective.

TFAH: What lessons did you learn from the most recent storm? Was there anything different or new that happened?

Dr. Philip: Hurricane Irma posed a unique challenge because the track was very unpredictable, meaning that more hospitals decided to evacuate and more residents decided to shelter. This storm at some points was 500 miles wide – which exceeded the width of our state. And, personnel could not be moved around in advance of the storm as the track changed to support other counties in the new path. EMAC, federal and contracted assets were mobilized to support sheltering operations but some counties had to wait until the storm passed to receive additional staffing.

Because of the surge in last minute registrations to special need shelters, comprehensive planning and placement for each registrant could not be conducted resulting in the shelter having to accept clients with medical needs that exceeded the shelters’ level of care capacity.

Moving forward, we recognize a need to anticipate future storms that may impact much, or all of the state, a scenario not contemplated prior to Hurricane Irma. For DOH, statewide emergency response efforts could be bolstered by improving planning for our special needs residents, including better training and increased collaboration with other state agencies and the private sector to support Floridians with special needs.