The city’s public health department had a busy 2020, to say the least.
Teams of epidemiologists and specialists were at the forefront of tracking and studying community spread of COVID-19, constantly learning how the virus impacted El Pasoans.
Angela Mora, El Paso’s public health director, is leading the department through the coronavirus response, as well as through a host of other health challenges in the community. She was named to the position in October, previously serving as the interim director after the departure of former public health director Robert Resendes.
Mora earned her bachelor’s and master’s in education UTEP. She was previously the founding director of the state of California’s Office of the Patient Advocate, the University of Arizona’s Border Office Director and spent 17 years in Houston at a nonprofit that advocated for HIV/AIDS patients.
El Paso Inc. spoke to Mora about the health snapshot of the city, the work of the public health department and how the pandemic has impacted the health of El Pasoans.
What kind of work does the Department of Public Health do?
We’re primarily responsible for protecting the health of the whole community. We don’t concentrate on personal services, like when individuals receive services from their medical practitioners.
We look at the whole community, how certain conditions can affect the health of the community in general, and what is it that we need to do to stop that from happening. It primarily has to do with the spread of communicable diseases.
Tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections – there’s about 35 conditions that are reportable to the health department by law, including salmonella, syphilis, chlamydia, tuberculosis, influenza and so on.
As a condition is diagnosed and they report through us, they report through the epidemiology and surveillance office in this department. Through surveillance, we can determine one condition that’s out there that might be spread. At that point we take action to ensure we stop the spread of that condition.
We also protect the community through restaurant inspections (to ensure they are) following all the guidelines necessary to manage the food in a safe way, including employee cleanliness, food prep and temperature requirements. We have the authority to shut down restaurants, for example, to make sure we stop that restaurant and those conditions from threatening the health of the community.
We have laboratory services that are your classic public health core services. We have epidemiology. Immunizations are huge in public health because that’s the way we can prevent disease.
We have a city clinic where individuals need medical providers to treat syphilis and so on. We also have a tuberculosis clinic which is about the only one in El Paso that’s solely dedicated to providing treatment and investigative services for people with tuberculosis.
We also provide public health population- based services, but they’re not the core services of public health.
For example, we have a pediatric dental clinic that targets children up to age 21 for dental services. We have the Women, Infant and Children’s program, which targets pregnant women, women of reproductive age and infants and children up to the age 5 years.
Q: What’s the public health department’s perspective on the pandemic and medical response to COVID-19?
It’s a magnified activity that we’re very used to.
We had a small measles outbreak a few years back. When that happens, we mobilize our personnel to start investigating, doing education, doing everything that’s necessary to stop the spread.
We had a tuberculosis situation at one of the hospitals several years ago. There were about 1,000 newborns exposed to someone with active tuberculosis in the hospital. At that point, we had to activate our larger response. We converted the clinic on El Paso Drive, we moved everyone out of those offices and created a mass-care clinic to bring all the moms, babies, grandmas.
We’re ready, we never know how large the outbreak and intervention or response is going to be.
In the case of COVID-19, you can imagine we’ve never seen a pandemic of this magnitude. El Paso was affected like everyone in the sense that we had all the skills and components and knowledge necessary for us to go to task and try to stop the spread of this pandemic.
Q: What are some common health risks and comorbidities in El Paso?
Diabetes is high. The most recent data is about two years old, but El Paso is about 13.95 of individuals per 100,000, compared to Texas, at 11.9 per 100,000.
Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, I think just the number of dialysis centers in El Paso tells you something. We’re 13.27 per 100,000 as opposed to 12.6 per 100,000 for the state of Texas.
We also have a high degree of hypertension and heart conditions in El Paso. Cervical cancer is at 10.5% per 100,000, and in Texas it’s 9.2%.
We have a high rate of obesity. Last time I checked, we were higher than Texas.
Q: Were there any changes in communicable diseases last year that were different from previous years?
The communicable conditions reported to us decreased tremendously, including STDs. It’s not because they’re not happening, it’s because people are not seeking medical care, or doctor’s offices are closed.
We’re trying to encourage people to seek medical care. We saw a very considerable decrease in all reportable conditions, except tuberculosis.
That tells you that people are not seeking medical care, and they must.
We’ve never had this dramatic drop in reportable conditions.