Talking About Climate Change in Tulsa: Health Department Leads the Way

Local health departments are increasingly stepping up to address climate change, each in their own way. Local health departments (LHDs) have a critical role to play in addressing climate change. LHDs are mandated to protect and promote the health of residents in their jurisdiction, and provide critical health services and prevention programs especially to the most vulnerable and in under-resourced communities. LHDs also have working relationships with the many other government agencies that shape living conditions that interact with climate change to impact health. And, LHDs are trusted sources of health information for the public and for policymakers, and thus in a good position to increase awareness about climate impacts on health, and to advocate for climate solutions that improve health and health equity. We hope this forthcoming series of stories from the field will inspire LHDs to integrate climate change into their on-going work to promote health and equity.

The Tulsa Department of Public Health is one of 12 local health departments participating in a national Climate and Health Learning Collaborative for Urban Health Departments. The Collaborative is funded by the Kresge Foundation, and coordinated by the Center for Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute.

As the impacts of climate change become more frequent and extreme, Oklahoma is likely to see warming temperatures, and increased variability of precipitation events and storms, which will significantly impact the health and prosperity of Oklahomans. These climate impacts will affect respiratory health, food security, and the local agricultural economy. Despite the evidence, Oklahoma state government officials have been hostile to any action to address climate change and environmental pollution. As Oklahoma attorney general, now-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt sued the EPA 13 times, even using language drafted by fossil fuel companies in his own memos. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) may have brought snowballs to the Senate floor in February 2015, but fast-forward two years and Oklahoma saw 100F in February – 44 degrees above the average February high!

Warning signs like this led the Tulsa City and County Health Department (TCCHD) to recognize the health threats of climate change, and to commit to doing something about it. TCCHD Environmental Health Services Department (EHSD) was particularly concerned about the potential for warming temperatures and increased variability of rainfall to change the patterns of mosquitos in the Tulsa area.  Of special interest was the potential spread of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika, Chikungunya, and dengue fever viruses into the Tulsa area, as well as increased overwintering of the mosquitos that carry West Nile Virus.

To address these emerging climate-related vector-borne disease risks, TCCHD proposed a project to enhance vector control and further mosquito disease prevention in the Tulsa area. The project entailed testing of new mosquito trapping techniques at selected sites, and monitoring and mapping of mosquito habitats and mosquito numbers. A key lesson learned is that the identification of Aedes aegypti requires the use of different traps and a different trapping approach in terms of location and times of day than TCCHD has previously used.

TCCHD also took an active role in modifying enforcement policies related to screening and mosquito habitats. TCCHD staff worked with the City of Tulsa’s code enforcement group to adopt more protective standards to require screens on windows and doors year-round and to enforce citations for not meeting existing summer months screen requirements. Additionally, TCCHD facilitated the enforcement of a new regulation that banned the sale of tires, which are ideal sites for mosquito breeding, within 300 feet of residential properties. Tulsa’s engagement in this process demonstrates the vital role that local departments play in collaborating with other city and county agencies. TCCHD worked with several other city partners, including Sand Springs, Jenks, Bixby, Glenpool, Broken Arrow, and Skiatook cities to expand community outreach, trap monitoring, and screening code enforcement.

In order to assess potential health disparities associated with mosquito-borne illness across Tulsa, TCCHD mapped the number of trapped mosquitos and economic hardship for each of Tulsa County’s 45 zip codes, demonstrating a positive correlation between the two. This finding may inform how community outreach, education, and code enforcement are carried out in the future.

EHSD worked closely with TCCHD Marketing and Creative Services department to develop media content, which was disseminated through 28 TV interviews, 12 Facebook posts, and 11 Tweets. Leveraging these media opportunities is essential to broad dissemination of information about mosquito habitats, health, and intervention strategies.

TCCHD demonstrates the challenges and strategies to addressing the health impacts of climate change in a politically conservative context, in which many people see that the climate is changing, but are confused by what they hear from state leaders. While the media messages did not explicitly reference climate change, they did share information about the fact that the climate is changing and the potential health impacts of those changes. Health is one of the most impactful entry points to begin discussions of climate change impacts.

TCCHD’s involvement in the learning collaborative and staff engagement has resulted in improvement of vector monitoring, vector-borne disease prevention, and equitable enforcement of policies that work to protect some of Tulsa’s most vulnerable communities and prepare for vector-borne disease in a changing climate.

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