Conference of Urban Counties brings annual event to Brazos County for first time
Elected officials from some of the largest counties in the state traveled to Brazos County on Wednesday for the Texas Conference of Urban Counties’ annual Education and Policy Conference.
This year’s event, which had in-person and virtual options, was the first time the conference has taken place in Brazos County, one of the organization’s smaller members. Members from as far as El Paso traveled to the Texas A&M Hotel and Conference Center to attend the Jan. 12-14 forum with sessions on the economy, renewable energy, the State Legislature, health and human services and other roundtable discussions.
“We’ve got 32 of the most populous counties in the state, representing about 72% of the population, and so the issues that impact Harris County and Dallas County and Bexar County are very similar to what Brazos County faces, just on a little bit smaller scale,” Adam Haynes, policy director for Texas Conference of Urban Counties, said.
The event, which was held virtually last year, allows county judges and commissioners to come together and talk about what challenges they face and the solutions they have found for those needs, Haynes said. For a place like Brazos County, he said, county officials can talk with representatives from other counties that have seen similar growth and can better prepare to meet the county’s infrastructure needs over the next five years.
That information also can be shared with less populous rural counties.
Among the attendees to the opening session were Brazos County Judge Duane Peters, Brazos County commissioners Steve Aldrich and Nancy Berry, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and Reps. John Raney and Kyle Kacal.
Haynes said he hopes the conference can serve as a reminder that all urban counties in the state are linked and face similar issues.
One of those issues has been the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adm. Brett Giroir, College Station resident and coronavirus testing czar under President Donald Trump, served as the keynote speaker at the event’s opening session Wednesday and said he sees public health as “a local sport.”
“The federal government is here to support and provide recommendations, provide money and resources; the governors have an important role in leading, but it’s really a local endeavor,” he said before speaking to the group. “That’s where the rubber meets the road. We’re at a stage in the pandemic where we are going to have to understand that we’re going to have to live with some degree of COVID over many years. We want to minimize the impact, but we are going to have to plan for a different scenario. COVID is not going away.
“And secondly, we have to live with the unforeseen consequences of the pandemic: mental health issues, overdose deaths, missed cancer screenings and people having late-stage cancer, so all these individuals are going to have to deal with it.”
Another aspect of public health he addressed was the notion that about 80% of people’s health, quality of life and longevity is based on social and environmental factors local officials can provide. Just the remaining 20% is centered on medical care.
Though he is not a local official, Giroir said he thinks the county leaders attending the conference will understand that there is “a great deal of commonality” in what they face.
“There are underserved populations in the middle of Houston, and they’re underserved populations in El Paso and out in rural Texas,” he said. They all have to work with the state and federal governments and the associated politics. “But the bottom line is, you know, that these are the people where the rubber meets the road. They have to rise above all that because they are accountable to the people to get actions done and preserve public health, but also to preserve jobs, the economy, kids going to school, and our way of life. That’s really where the rubber meets the road. This is, as we say in the military, the pointy end of the spear. This is where it really happens, and they all have that in common, no matter where they come from.”
Addressing the group during his presentation, Giroir said, the expectation is that the country will have to deal with COVID-19 for years.
One of his public health goals is to minimize hospitalizations and deaths among vulnerable populations, saying it can be done through vaccinations – including the booster – and the use of N95 and KN95 masks. He noted cloth masks are not as effective at protecting against the contagious omicron variant.
He stated the booster is important because the first two doses act like one in the long term, so the booster increases a person’s protection against the virus.
Outside of COVID-19, Giroir said he wants to see pharmacists utilized more in helping patients and local officials implementing programs and initiatives to address learning and health disparities in their communities.
“I don’t know how you deal with that, but there’s going to have to be some program or we’re going to have health disparities, learning disparities, economic disparities, social injustice like we’ve never seen before because we’re leaving the poorest behind while the well-to-do stay ahead,” he said. “Just a fact. I’m not trying to be Republican or Democrat; that’s just the way it is.”
One of the most significant ways of addressing disparities, he said, is working on providing people the opportunity “for education, for employment, for safe communities, for ability to exercise, for eliminating food deserts.” Food deserts are places where it is difficult for people to find affordable fresh food items.
“One of the reasons why I was so excited about coming here is because I see the future of medical care in your hands,” he said. “You’re not physicians; you’re not pharmacists; you’re not whatever, but I can only do a little bit. The Congress can only do a little bit. It really starts at the community level.”
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