BCM faculty joins mayor’s COVID-19 response effort

Baylor faculty are involved in a City of Houston effort to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in underserved communities where people are disproportionately impacted, not just  by the consequences of disease but also by economic challenges.

Dr. Asim Shah

Dr. Asim Shah

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner established the Health Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force to assist with disease prevention in these communities. Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, plays a major role in this task force.

This initiative was launched by the Mayor in April 2020 as a COVID-19 response and recovery effort. Turner has appointed medical specialists, public health professionals, communications creatives, data scientists, technology experts and faith leaders to make up the task force. They are serving 22 neighborhoods in the Houston area, including Acres Home, Denver Harbor, Eastex-Jensen, Fifth Ward, Gulfton, Independence Heights, Kashmere Gardens, Sunnyside and Third Ward.

“The disease is spreading disproportionately to these areas and minorities. The task force was created to look into all these aspects and how we can prevent the spread of disease in specific areas,” Shah said.

The H.E.R. task force visits neighborhoods where the disease is more prevalent to distribute materials, hold food drives and teach the community about the importance of preventative measures, such as wearing a face coverings in public. H.E.R. consists of three subcommittees: the public health subcommittee, medical subcommittee and faith-based committee. Shah serves as the co-chair of the public health committee, while also serving on the medical and faith-based subcommittees.

As chair of the public health committee, Shah developed the Community Health Education Fellows for COVID (CHEF) program. CHEF consists of nearly 18 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30, who were identified from the 22 neighborhoods to work with the mayor’s committee for six to 12 months. They will educate the public in their areas, work with contact tracers and organize events in their communities. Shah will oversee and assist with the program on mental health efforts.

The three subcommittees overlap, and strive to raise awareness about the virus through education and outreach. Members of the taskforce meet weekly to discuss initiatives for mitigation.

“The goal is to identify an area or source in the neighborhood where the virus can easily spread, such as places of worship or anywhere people gather. We involve religious leaders in this area that are part of the faith-based committee to help with educating their communities,” Shah said.

The faith-based committee also brings together mental health experts and faith and community leaders to lead town halls on the mental health and wellness in vulnerable communities. Topics include fear, anxiety, social deprivation and social isolation surrounding the pandemic.

H.E.R. partners with food donors to host food drives to neighborhoods suffering from food insecurity. They offer meals for families, as well as pamphlets and medical-related education materials, which are offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese.

Shah’s work on H.E.R. represents the commitment that physicians across the country have shown to serving their communities in trying times while trying to combat the spread of coronavirus. Shah has also been appointed to chair of the Mental Health Task Force for Fort Bend County, where he conducts weekly, online town halls with other mental health professionals and the Fort Bend County Judge. The town halls are broadcast on Facebook.

Dr. Keila Lopez

Dr. Keila Lopez

Dr. Keila Lopez, assistant professor of pediatrics – cardiology, and Dr. David Persse, professor of emergency medicine and City of Houston emergency medical services director, were also selected to serve on the H.E.R. taskforce in addressing health inequities in at-risk neighborhoods. Lopez is on the medical and public health subcommittees, where she advocates for communities for whom English is a second language.

“I make sure they are receiving culturally appropriate and tailored messaging surrounding COVID-19 in the appropriate languages. That includes making sure we have a medical writer and translators on board to make sure the messages are clear,” Lopez said.

She also participates in town halls in Spanish, where she’s addressed the myths and misconceptions of the virus. She has discussed public health principles and factors to consider for parents thinking about sending their children back to school.

By Homa Shalchi