Our class got to visit the Pinellas County Health Department in downtown St.
Petersburg. While at the health department, we were fortunate enough to meet with two of their Public Health Preparedness Planners to learn more about Points of Dispensing (PODs) and Special Needs Shelters, and how they operate in Pinellas County.
Just a little background information, the Pinellas County Health Department is a division of the Florida Department of Health with six locations in Pinellas County. As of February 2016, surprisingly the Florida Department of Health celebrated its 127th anniversary.
The Pinellas County Health Department offers a variety of services to their clients while serving many different roles in protecting public health from potential disasters and emergencies. They have a primary care clinic, dental clinic and refugee clinic –this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as this health department goes. Additionally, the St. Petersburg branch houses a small team of Public Health Preparedness Planners – employees who work on plans to keep the public safe and intact in different emergency situations.
Points of Dispensing (PODs) In Pinellas County
Public Health Planning Specialist, Ana Ureta, shared how they are involved with the planning component of PODs. POD stands for Points of Dispensing and they are locations where different items or treatments may be distributed – items such as vaccines or prophylactic medications in response to a potential epidemic/outbreak situation. PODs are opened by the Department of Health but most of those operating the POD would be volunteers that are registered with the Medical Reserve Corps (MRC).
In Pinellas, there are 23 different locations across the county for people to access these medications when needed. The population of Pinellas county is just shy of 1,000,000 residents – each POD would need to serve a little over 19,000 people per hour per POD. This is where planning comes into play and building partnerships with local businesses can help to reach the entire populations.
Where do you get a large amount of vaccinations or medications you might ask? PODs will draw from the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS). The SNS is a stockpile of drugs, vaccines, and other medical supplies for cases where the local supply would not be adequate. According to Ana Ureta, “PODs are only opened when a large portion of the population is determined to be at great risk [due] to a contagious disease or other biological agent.” No one is turned away at PODs – it doesn’t matter if they are adults or children. All people who arrive at a POD will be addressed and taken care of.
PODs follow four steps in their function: 1) Greeting & Screening of Patients, 2) Triage, 3) Form Check, and 4) Dispensing Area & Form Collection. People visiting the PODs follow each of these steps – if they are sick, during the triage step they may be sent to a medical center. Forms and sheets in PODs include personal information sheets (used to determine
if there are any drug allergies), sheets on medication information (pertaining to medications being distributed), and sheets that describe the disease/condition for which the PODs have been opened. At step 4, medications or other supplies are distributed or given to the person/people – a person is allowed to pick up more than a single set of medication if they are taking it back to their family.
PODs play an important role in the public health preparedness sphere. Pinellas county seems to be well prepared for a public health emergency and their team is working hard to continue to improve upon their emergency response plans.
Special Needs Shelters (SpNS) In Pinellas County
Then we had the opportunity to hear from Duane Steiner regarding the special needs shelters in Pinellas County. Special needs shelters are shelters that serve populations where a regular shelter may not be adequate for medical reasons. An example of someone who may go to a special needs shelter instead of a regular shelter would be someone who lives independently but is dependent on electricity for care -this could mean that they need to use a CPAP or other device that requires electricity to run. Special Needs Shelters serve an important function that cannot be done in a regular shelter while taking some of the burden off local hospitals. Furthermore, they keep emergency medical services and an ambulance at their site as long as the shelter is open.
Pinellas county plans for 35 general population shelters, and 3 special needs shelters. In 2004, they decided to separate special needs and general population shelters in order to better serve those in the shelters. The typical site location for shelters (especially special needs shelters) are schools, as they are typically built to withstand strong winds. They typically have the amenities needed for mass care; large restrooms, showers, secured rooms, and cafeterias. Public Health Preparedness Planner, Duane Steiner, mentioned something about shelters that I found both amusing and accurate: they function as a “lifeboat, not a cruise ship.”
People who are advised to evacuate are encouraged to stay with friends, family, or in a hotel outside of the evacuation area – the shelters are a last resort. Those who must turn to a shelter receive a place to stay to bunker down from the storm – treatment is limited at best at special needs shelters, though they do have EMS personnel present. Shelters plan to be open for three to five days, through the duration of the storm or event. It was refreshing to know that one of the three special needs shelters in Pinellas county is actually pet friendly.
Special needs shelters are critical in keeping those who do have special medical needs safe during a storm. Pinellas county seems to have a pretty good plan for the operation of their special needs shelters.
What I learned from this experience
Through this experience, I learned how Pinellas County handles their PODs and Special Needs Shelters during emergency and/or disaster times, and about about the work that both Ana Ureta and Duane Steiner have as Public Health Preparedness Planners. I am very glad that we had this experience – I do not realized how many different things Public Health Preparedness Planners do and plan for on a daily basis. I do feel like Pinellas county is in good hands – their plans and presentations on both PODs and Special Needs Shelters were very well thought out and organized. In their jobs, they can lay out plans that can help keep people safe and healthy, even in worst-case scenarios. It is always better to have a plan and not need it than to need a plan and not have one.
Written by: Matthew Allman, Undergraduate Student in the College of Public Health, University of South Florida