Up to $ 60 million in federal pandemic aid will be set aside for a new public health initiative to serve economically disadvantaged communities in outlying Bexar County, officials announced Tuesday.

The county will form a public health division under its University Health system. County leaders also will re-examine and coordinate some 15 health-related services currently provided by several departments. A nine-member public health advisory board will be formed, and the county will build on partnerships with Texas A&M University-San Antonio and local school districts to develop a trained health care workforce to serve the South Side.

The county’s investment “is about no longer allowing a person’s ZIP code to determine his or her health outcomes,” said Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, who represents the South Side.

She said the initiative, announced by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and supported by all four county commissioners, will empower the community by tackling health inequities tied to income and education that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed.

The virus has been linked to the death of some 5,300 county residents in the past two years. Many had diabetes, heart disease and other risk factors.

“We have to understand how educational opportunities, racism, poverty and other social determinants contribute to the health, both physically and mentally, of students as they grow into adulthood,” Clay-Flores said.

A portion of the $ 388 million provided to the county through the federal American Rescue Plan Act will be allocated for the initiative as commissioners continue discussions on other uses of the funds – affordable housing, mental health services, domestic violence treatment and prevention, and financial stabilization following revenue losses from the pandemic. The county has until the end of 2026 to spend the funds.

Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, who helped with the reorganization, said the county has a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to make transformative, real change in our community.” He said it’s about “expanding and re-imagining how we can take these initiatives to the doorsteps of families who need it the most.”

“If we do nothing else with these funds, we have to invest them in a way that helps transform the delivery of public health initiatives in our community,” Rodriguez said.

Cynthia Teniente-Matson, Texas A&M president, said the university offers a four-year degree in community health, is building a pipeline to attract middle and high school students from seven South Side school districts who are interested in health careers and is developing a public health division facility with a UH hospital planned adjacent to the campus.

“We talk a lot about collective impact. This is a critical example that you can point to; you’ll be able to touch; you’ll be able to see the impact of all of us working together to lift our communities, ”Teniente-Matson said.

County Manager David Smith will examine services such as food inspection, vector control and more than a dozen others for efficiencies and better coordination with the city’s Metropolitan Health District, University Health and the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, which oversees emergency and trauma care in a 22-county region. The new public health advisory board will be composed of five appointees from the Commissioners Court and four from University Health’s board of managers.

University Health has been a lifesaver for the community, providing 500,000 COVID-19 vaccinations at its mass-vaccination site at Wonderland of the Americas mall and another 100,000 countywide, Wolff said.

“Had they not stood up, we would’ve been in a much, much worse condition,” he said.

University Health President and CEO George Hernandez said advancing public health dovetails with the hospital district’s mission.

“Unfortunately, public health access is not equal across the county. Certain areas of unincorporated Bexar County need additional support, ”Hernandez said.


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