As wildfires cut their destructive paths across California and leave thousands displaced in their wake, they wreak medical havoc.
Respiratory ailments and hospitalizations increase. Patients with chronic diseases – many of whom have left their medications behind – watch previously well-managed conditions bloom into crises. People dependent on medical devices can be left without a power source. And as evacuees crowd together into shelters, infectious diseases can spread like, well, wildfire.
With blazes cropping up around California and blackouts leaving millions in the dark, the state’s Department of Public Health, and several of its nonprofit community health centers, have reached out to Direct Relief for help.
What do they need? Everything from N95 masks – which can block up to 95% of the minute particles released into the air during a wildfire – to antiviral medicines for people sheltering in cramped facilities. Health centers that have sprung into action to care for the people streaming into their community need funding – fast – to deal with the huge increase in operating costs.
“People who are vulnerable on a normal day are particularly vulnerable during an emergency, and Direct Relief is doing everything possible to make sure health services are available to those who need them and have few options,” said Thomas Tighe, Direct Relief’s president and CEO.
On Sunday, Direct Relief promised up to $1 million in cash and resources to local health centers affected by or responding to the current crisis.
And today, the organization’s emergency response team is on the ground in Northern California, delivering more than 100,000 N95 masks, oxygen concentrators, and respiratory medications to health care organizations caring for patients affected by the fire.
The current cluster of fires also overlaps with the beginning of flu season, when the virus is increasingly present in communities, but many people still haven’t been vaccinated.
The threat that the flu poses in crowded California shelters recalls the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire, when shelters housing Butte County evacuees were hit with outbreaks of norovirus, a highly contagious illness that causes nausea and vomiting.
To prevent a similar situation from occurring, the California Department of Public Health has requested additional supplies of Tamiflu, an antiviral medication, which Direct Relief will provide.
During an emergency, hygiene is more important than ever. To help people displaced by the fires remain clean and comfortable, the organization is currently providing personal hygiene kits to shelters housing evacuees.
As California’s electricity providers shut off power to communities throughout the state, health centers housing temperature-sensitive vaccines and other medications, such as insulin, are vulnerable. A Direct Relief survey found that only 44% of health centers have an alternate source of power.
For health centers lacking a backup generator, Direct Relief has a number of batteries and generators available, which the organization will supply to health centers as needed.
Nonetheless, it’s likely that as the blackouts continue, some temperature-sensitive vaccinations will be lost. Direct Relief has supplies of insulin and other cold-chain medications in its Santa Barbara warehouse, and the organization will provide these to health centers whose supplies are compromised or lost.
“Mass evacuations create heightened risks for people with chronic conditions that, if unmanaged, can rapidly become acute health crises,” Tighe said. “That’s why Direct Relief has made its medical inventories available and is working closely with local and state public health officials and its corporate healthcare partners to ensure availability and rapid delivery of essential medications in the unfolding, dynamic situation.”