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On the Ground This Week: HHS to Lead Federal Response in Flint

Here's how HHS is leading the federal government response to the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Ed. note: This is cross-posted on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services blog. See the original post here.

Flint, Michigan is in the midst of a serious public health crisis, with high levels of lead in its water supply. President Obama signed an emergency declaration on Saturday, ordering federal assistance to support state and local response efforts.

With the emergency declaration in place, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has now been designated the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating federal government response and recovery efforts.

This means that HHS will, in collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), identify and mobilize the capabilities of the rest of the federal partners – including the Small Business Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Education and Agriculture (USDA) -- that are already working to help residents in Flint.

The goal of the federal response will be to help state and local leaders identify the size and scope of the problem, and work with them to make and execute a plan for mitigation of the short- and long-term health effects of lead exposure. 

HHS will have a team on the ground in Flint this week. The team will be led by Dr. Nicole Lurie, HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). Dr. Lurie will begin engaging with state and local officials today and will travel to Flint tomorrow. 

In order to fully leverage the Department’s strengths, the HHS team will include HHS Acting Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Karen DeSalvo, whose office manages the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health and Safety Risks to Children, and who will be the primary interface with state and local public health officials. Two U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps officers will also help with the day-to-day responsibilities in Flint. 

While HHS will now take on a more prominent role in helping state and local officials respond to this public health crisis, the agency has already been actively engaged in response and recovery efforts, including:

  • Providing, at the State of Michigan’s request, a range of technical assistance to state and local health departments, public health practices for medical professionals, and public health communications;
  • Working with HHS grantees in the area to disseminate public health education through Head Start and Community Health Centers programs, administered by HHS’s Administration for Children and Families and Health Resources and Services Administration, respectively; 
  • Providing technical assistance related to case management processes and interventions for children with high blood lead levels and interpretation of blood lead levels in adults; and
  • Using existing resources to help the state identify vulnerable populations in Flint who may need further targeted outreach.

FEMA, EPA, HUD, and USDA are also actively engaged in existing response and recovery efforts.    

  • FEMA is providing bottled water and filters to Flint. The agency has already provided approximately 71,200 liters of bottled water for distribution to Flint residents.
  • EPA is working with state and local officials to reduce lead levels in tap water and provide safe drinking water to the residents of Flint.  EPA is also conducting a comprehensive audit of the Michigan drinking water program and a detailed review Michigan’s implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Flint. In October 2015, EPA established a task force to provide recommendations to the State of Michigan and the City of Flint to re-optimize corrosion control as soon as possible and to prepare for the planned switch to water supplied by the Karegnondi Water Authority in 2016
  • HUD is working closely with the city on economic development and interagency coordination.  They have successfully assisted the city with the purchase and installation of water filters. HUD had an existing lead hazard grant to Flint, targeted to lead paint, $325,000 of which could be used for addressing the water lead contamination.  Additionally, HUD has provided a data tracking and reporting system for the State of Michigan to use in its lead investigations.
  • USDA has waived requirements on potable tap water availability at school meal service, allowing schools to provide bottled water.  The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is also allowing participants to use WIC vouchers for ready-to-feed infant formula, which does not need to be mixed with water, and participants can also swap powdered formula for ready-to-feed formula.

HHS will provide more details about future federal response and recovery efforts after the HHS team gets on the ground and has a chance to further engage with state and local officials. In the meantime, the Department will continue to work with state and local officials to determine how the federal government can best provide further assistance.

Mary K. Wakefield, Ph.D., RN is the HHS Acting Deputy Secretary