According to Harris County’s proposed FY 2020-21 budget, the county public health department's budget was initially slated to increase from $29.34 million in FY 2019-20 to $35.85 million—a difference of about $6 million. Of that increase, $3 million was allocated for emergency response positions and veterinary public health programs, according to HCPH Executive Director Dr. Umair Shah.
However, during the Feb. 11 Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed the $3 million allocation be increased to $5.7 million.
“The additional dollars would include a combination of community outreach but also [grant us] funding to allow us to do additional infectious disease activities,” Shah said during the meeting. “We recognized the importance of HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis [activities] ... and obviously with coronavirus activities right now ... [it] makes us very focused on the importance of infectious disease response.”
The additional HCPH funding was unanimously approved by the Harris County Commissioners Court along with the FY 2020-21 budgets for Harris County, the Harris County Flood Control District and the Harris Health System during the Feb. 11 meeting. The same day, County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the launch of a new coronavirus myth-buster website available at www.readyharris.org/rumorcontrol.
“We know there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the spread of this virus, but when it comes to understanding the threat of this virus we have to rely on facts, not fear,” Hidalgo said an a statement. “In our information age, unsubstantiated rumors can spread quickly, unnecessarily causing harm and anxiety to families and businesses in our area.”
Shah added that while there are no confirmed cases or cases of novel coronavirus in Houston, Harris County or Texas, unsubstantiated rumors continue to hinder Harris County’s Asian-American community.
“The challenge that we’ve had is that there have been some specific, very hate-driven and very negative comments towards the Asian-American community,” Shah said during the meeting. “When we were ... at the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, we were hearing that in Chinatown and in the southwest part of Harris County, they reported to us that businesses in terms of grocery stores and restaurants have seen 50%, 60% and 70% decreases in traffic.”
Shah said HCPH is working closely with local, state and federal officials to monitor coronavirus and should any local cases occur, the department would notify the public and advise any additional steps residents should take to protect themselves if necessary.
“The best way for residents to understand the current state of coronavirus is to rely on information from trusted sources,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “We want to partner with residents and empower folks to seek out reliable information so that they can make informed decisions on how to best stay safe.”
Garcia said the HCPH budget increase was just a small way to reinforce the importance of the department’s dedication to veterinary public health, nutrition and chronic disease prevention, and disease control and clinical prevention programs.
“It’s always a concern when you see people walking around in facemasks, and I want to reiterate why having [the HCPH] department have the capacity to deal with such things as disease control is so critical,” Garcia said during the meeting.