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KU Medical Center’s COPE program built an infrastructure to execute ‘Operation Hydration’ throughout Kansas

A 2021 grant for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in rural Kansas created a collaboration that responded to an August heatwave — saving lives and expanding community outreach.

A woman hands bottle of water to a smiling bus driver
Local action teams were deployed in “Operation Hydration” to distribute cold water and ice. Here, volunteer Felecia Cunningham provides water to bus driver L.A. Talbert.

It’s hard to imagine now as we approach winter, but there was a week last August when oppressive heat endangered the safety and health of vulnerable people throughout Kansas. Thanks to partnerships created by the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Communities Organizing to Promote Equity (COPE), local volunteers and community health workers provided fast relief to keep people cooled and hydrated.

Extreme temperatures with heat indices exceeding 120 and as high as 130 degrees in some parts of the state created unsafe conditions for a variety of people, including those working outdoors and those without permanent housing. The extreme heat that week tested the COPE infrastructure, which was designed to quickly mobilize communities and partners into action in response to a statewide public health emergency.

Before there was a vaccine for COVID-19, the National Institutes of Health awarded one of 70 Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx-UP) grants to KU Medical Center researchers to quickly develop and distribute better and faster tests for COVID-19. Part of that project was creating an infrastructure in the state to engage and organize public health workers.

“Our focus was originally on testing for COVID,” said Christina Pacheco, J.D., MPH, project director for COPE and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine. “We wanted people to know their status to prevent spread of the infection.”

But two years and one grant renewal later, the focus has expanded to identify other ways to reach underserved communities in times of a public health emergency. COPE created community outreach groups, called local health equity action teams, that came in handy during the heat wave.

One of those leaders was Nikki Ramirez-Jennings in Shawnee County, who reached out to a counterpart based in Northeast Kansas, Tatiana Darby, to discuss a response to the dangerous conditions. They came up with an idea to provide emergency water stations around Topeka to those in need. The heat wave coincided with an uptick of COVID-19 cases, and the plan was to prevent as many heat-related emergency-room visits as possible. Pacheco explained that would create greater capacity for hospitals to treat the recent increase in COVID-19 cases.

After emails, virtual calls and brainstorming with the 19 other COPE communities, a plan emerged. While the grant couldn’t pay directly for the water, it had already proven invaluable by setting up a network of on-the-ground local individuals who knew how and where to reach people who needed assistance.

People stand in a grocery store aisle with shopping carts piled high with packs of water bottles

Pictured left to right: Veronica Trujillo, Ernestina Marquez,
Lisa Winchester, Phil Handsaker and Goretti Sanchez picking
up water for two days of distribution during the August heatwave.

Dubbed ”Operation Hydration,” the project would take advantage of the previous network focused on COVID-19 testing. Though the groups had never attempted to pull off this type of project before, it came together quickly, ran efficiently and likely saved lives. Teams reached out to community partners to request donations of bottled water, and they quickly assembled to pick up cases of water and bags of ice. About 21,000 bottles were distributed in just a few days.

“In two days, we distributed 30 cases of water,” said Phil Handsaker, with Beyond Barriers, a key COPE partner based in Dodge City. “Very quickly we made a plan, met up to buy the water and headed to where we believed people would need help.” That included delivering water to road crews working in the heat and putting cases of water on buses to distribute free to the public.

“The experience was eye-opening,” said Handsaker, who lives in Ford County. “There were assumptions about where groups of homeless people were setting up camps, and we were wrong. So, we expanded our search and made new connections — providing referrals for food and shelter to people who were unaware of the available services in our area.”

Since that sweltering week in August, individuals involved have come up with even more ways to break down barriers to staying healthy in their communities. In Ford County, volunteers made and distributed 3,900 hygiene kits to schools (pre-K through college age) and 91 first-responder kits.

While meeting every month to continue brainstorming new solutions, the teams have identified five major efforts to prioritize, including expanding community pantries, addressing homeless issues, establishing community-wide food-sharing, exploring school lunch gaps and investigating transportation gaps. They also are looking at ideas for people who need assistance for eyecare and eyewear.

Handsaker knows all the teams made important progress that will change the way communities care for their most vulnerable people. “Our biggest challenge was being able to respond quickly to the heatwave,” he said. “But now we have a path, and we have contacts to cut through red tape that tends to slow things down.”

The original two-year COPE grant to KU Medical Center was renewed and is now in its third year. The partnership builds individual and community capacity by increasing health knowledge and self-sufficiency through outreach, community education, informal counseling, social support and advocacy. So far, COPE community health workers have reached thousands of Kansans — about 90% in rural areas — and more than 80% of those reached say their priority needs were successfully addressed.

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