DHSS emergency team coordinates earthquake health needs

After the magnitude 7.0 earthquake jolted Southcentral Alaska at 8:29 a.m. on Nov. 30, it took less than 15 minutes for DHSS Health Emergency Response Operations staff to gather on the fourth floor of the Frontier Building in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Staff quickly began gathering facts to gain better situational awareness of the disaster, separating rumors from confirmed facts, and checking on and disseminating information about medical facilities and DHSS services in the affected areas.

DHSS plays a critical role during natural disasters and other emergencies. The Health Emergency Response Operations program, located within the Division of Public Health, activates the EOC to coordinate and support emergencies with local and state agencies. This provides healthcare system partners with situational awareness and a common operating picture to allow on-scene emergency responders to focus on their response efforts. The DHSS EOC coordinates closely with the State Emergency Operations Center as well as other response agencies. Public information is another important role of the DHSS EOC.

Some of the specific tasks handled by the DHSS EOC during the November 30 earthquake included coordinating with hospitals, pharmacies, and other healthcare entities to ensure sites were operational and had the needed resources to care for patients. All Southcentral hospitals remained operational and able to accept patients after the earthquake, but some smaller facilities and pharmacies had interruptions in service, which required coordination by the DHSS EOC to minimize disruption of medical services for Alaskans. 

Ensuring mental health support was another important function of the DHSS EOC. Staff arranged for Crisis Canines to go into workplaces and schools to provide emotional support and for behavioral health teams from Oregon and HCA Healthcare to assist the Anchorage School District and Mat-Su School District with counseling services as schools reopened. The DHSS EOC also worked with the Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services to compile and disseminate behavioral health counseling options for the public. Division of Behavioral Health staff gave several media interviews about how to cope after the earthquake, staffed a booth at an Anchorage Museum event and assisted with a FEMA video as a resource to parents.

The DHSS EOC returned to a Level 1 operational status on Thursday, Dec. 20, which means work continues as additional resource requests are processed but it does not require everyone to be in the Emergency Operations Center; staff can work from their offices. As efforts transition from response to recovery, it will take time for everyone to recover from this earthquake. Health Emergency Response Operations staff continue to support recovery efforts. DHSS staff continuously train and prepare for disasters and public health and medical emergencies. As part of that process, they review what went well and areas for improvements after each event in order to improve response efforts for the next event.  There will be another earthquake and DHSS is ready to respond.

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