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Fire outside of a home with firefighters combatting the blaze. Photo by David Royal
Photo by David Royal
Photo by Nana Kofi Acquah.
Photo by Nana Kofi Acquah.
Mother and child outside of their shelter during a storm. Photo/Nicolo Filippo Rosso
Photo/Nicolo Filippo Rosso
Child washing his hands. Photo by Thoko Chikondi
Photo by Thoko Chikondi

The Risk:

Climate Crisis

The damage that can be inflicted by a changing climate makes it one of the most dangerous, yet preventable, risks to human health. The World Health Organization projects climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths a year from 2030 to 2050, largely due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. Chronic respiratory illnesses, such as asthma and COPD, can also be caused by pollution from the same fossil fuels contributing to climate change.

graphic of the earth and a temperature gauge

Working Together to Build Better

Americares, the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) and Biogen are working together to protect the health of families before disaster strikes. In 2021 we launched a groundbreaking project to help community health clinics serving low-income and uninsured patients prepare for the most frequent climate threats, buffer risks to the patients they serve and improve health outcomes. Biogen is also providing financial support to the project as part of its Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives™ commitment to addressing the interrelated challenges of climate and health.

“The families most affected by climate change often have the fewest resources and the least ability to adapt in times of crisis,” said Americares Associate Director of Emergency Preparedness Mariel Fonteyn. “This project is about equity. It’s the first of its kind to focus on safety net clinics and the unique needs of low-income families disproportionately affected by climate change.”

Extreme weather events such as major hurricanes and ice storms can lead to prolonged power outages, which can leave patients without needed medications and shutter medical facilities and pharmacies for days, or even weeks.

“In areas prone to climate-related disasters, clinic closures can happen multiple times per year, which can have significant and long-term health effects.”

Mariel Fonteyn, Americares Associate Director of Emergency Preparedness

Stephanie Konvicka, who is organizing psychosocial programs for the Matagorda Episcopal Health Outreach Program to help Hurricane Harvey survivors cope with stress and trauma, gives Americares relief worker Curtis Barnes a tour of the storm recovery in her hometown of Wharton, Texas. Here they observe the demolition of the Just Do it Now community center, which was badly damaged in the storm. Konvicka is organizing yoga and art therapy classes to help community members come together and heal with funding from Americares Hurricane Harvey Recovery Program.
Stephanie Konvicka, who organized psychosocial programs for the Matagorda Episcopal Health Outreach Program to help Hurricane Harvey survivors cope with stress and trauma, gives Americares relief worker Curtis Barnes a tour of the storm recovery in her hometown of Wharton, Texas.

The pilot project launched with nine partner organizations in four states: California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas. All of the clinics have experienced recurring emergencies due to climate change. Participating clinics provide information on knowledge gaps, real-world challenges, and opportunities for interventions for their patient populations.

“While climate resiliency is often about strengthening buildings, what makes our project so unique is our focus on the people inside those buildings,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE. “We aim to find new ways to protect people most at risk from the climate crisis and advance health equity.”

Clinics in the pilot phase will contribute to the creation of a Climate Resilient Clinics Toolkit, which will be made available to safety net clinics at risk of climate-related disasters. The toolkit will include:

  • Clinician screening checklists for assessing patient vulnerability to climate change;
  • Disease management plans for patients and providers to prepare for heatwaves and other extreme events; and
  • Decision trees for clinic management during extreme weather

“We are developing core tools and resources that will transform how we safeguard patients living in regions prone to flooding, extreme heat, and severe storms,” said Mariel Fonteyn.

The project will expand across the country and, eventually, internationally, with up to 150 clinics benefitting.

“It is essential that we work to meet science-based targets that limit global warming to 1.5C, while also addressing the impacts that the climate crisis is having on human health. This pioneering initiative is aimed at protecting patients from the climate health effects happening now, with a focus on those most at risk.”

Biogen Chief Medical Officer Maha Radhakrishnan, M.D.

Participating Clinics and Organizations

California

Free Clinic of Simi Valley
CALIFORNIA

The Free Clinic of Simi Valley

The Free Clinic of Simi Valley in Southern California provides critical medical care to low-income families. Its patients live with the intensifying effects of climate change, including heat and drought.

Two CalFire crew digging a fire line with orange flames near by.
CALIFORNIA

Lestonnac Free Clinic

Lestonnac Free Clinic, based in Orange County, Calif., has 13 clinic sites throughout Southern California. In 2020, due to the numerous wildfires, they saw a significant increase in patients coming into the clinic for upper respiratory issues and breathing problems due to the fires.

Massachusetts

Flood photo of cars underwater
MASSACHUSETTS

Cambridge Health Alliance

Cambridge Health Alliance works in two safety net community hospitals and multiple primary care centers that serve several diverse communities north of Boston. Its patients are at high risk of heat-related illnesses due to urban heat-island effects, and their neighborhoods are at high risk of flooding due to rising sea levels and worsening storms.

North Carolina

Community Care Clinic of Dare
NORTH CAROLINA

The Community Care Clinic of Dare

The Community Care Clinic of Dare in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In addition to the frequent and intensifying hurricanes that have been occurring, the clinic and patients face challenges from ongoing flooding caused by rising sea levels and increasing temperatures that have a disproportionate effect on their patients who often work outdoors.

Kintegra Health clinic
NORTH CAROLINA

Kintegra Health

Kintegra Health, a community health center in North Carolina with over 30 sites. The sites and patients face significant issues from frequent flooding washing out roads and access to healthcare, as well as deteriorating infrastructure, particularly in the rural areas.

Poster showing NCAFCC
NORTH CAROLINA

The North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics

The North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (NCAFCC) supports 70 free and charitable clinics and pharmacies in the state by coordinating disaster response activities and supporting clinics as they provide healthcare for medically underserved North Carolinians. NCAFCC is feeling the effects of climate change and staff are called on to assist member clinics as climate change has acute and long-term effects on patient care and clinic operations.

Texas

Matagorda health workers in front of a COVID Workers sign
TEXAS

Matagorda Episcopal Health Outreach Program (MEHOP)

Matagorda Episcopal Health Outreach Program (MEHOP) provides critical health and behavioral health services for Matagorda County on the east coast of Texas. The facility was evacuated during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and had many patients and staff members affected by the recent deep freeze. MEHOP is in a rural, underserved area with significant and growing challenges around access to healthcare, degrading infrastructure, and insufficient funds to rebuild after disasters.

Medicines being preserved in cooler
TEXAS

San José Clinic

San José Clinic, a charity clinic in Houston, Texas, serves patients directly impacted by Hurricane Harvey and the recent winter storm and related power outages.

Photo of a flooded road in Beaumont Texas
TEXAS

Ubi Caritas

Ubi Caritas, a free clinic in Beaumont, Texas, serves communities impacted by multiple hurricanes.