The COVID-19 pandemic caught many in Texas off guard. And poor understanding of the situation statewide, as well as piecemeal state, local and federal responses, had deadly consequences. So far, over 50,000 Texans have died from COVID-19 and over 2.5 million people in the state have contracted the illness.
But a new state agency, dubbed the “Texas CDC,” will aim to help Texas recover from the current pandemic, and be better prepared for the next one, says Eric Boerwinkle. He is dean of UT Health Science Center at Houston’s School of Public Health – the institution that will lead the Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute, or TEPHI. Boerwinkle says UT Health is ideal because it has campuses across the state, meaning it has the potential to efficiently respond to a major public health emergency.
Funding for TEPHI will, in the beginning, come from a mix of federal COVID relief money and state money.
The agency will also partner with other state agencies like the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Boerwinkle says TEPHI has three main objectives: to grow the workforce needed for pandemic response; increase laboratory testing capacity; and improve data analytics. Weaknesses in all three areas hindered Texas’ response to COVID-19. He says better data analytics, in particular, will be essential for Texas’ response to the next pandemic “to actually understand what’s happening in Texas, what’s happening in our urban areas, what’s happening in rural Texas, and provide that information to our government and public health leaders so their information can be based on facts,” he said.
Boerwinkle argues Texas’ size and diversity makes the new agency necessary. He wouldn’t say whether establishing the agency sooner would have saved lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, but says it will be necessary for protecting Texans’ health and the Texas economy during the next one.
“We’ve basically talked about good public health and good business as being on the opposite side of fence; they’re are not mutually exclusive,” Boerwinkle said. “The role of TEPHI really is to help save lives in Texas and keep businesses strong, keep the schools open, and just help Texas be prepared better for the next pandemic.“