Tulare County is the first in a statewide effort to survey residents about how the drought has affected their health.
Sixty volunteers speaking Spanish or English canvassed homes around Porterville and Cutler-Orosi between Oct. 20 and 22. In all, 185 people were surveyed in Cutler-Orosi and 207 in Porterville.
The county has been hit hard by four years of drought. Families in towns with no central water system rely on private wells. As of Tuesday, the county has 1,410 active well failures and only 578 solutions, either through an interim water tank program or drilling deeper wells.
That means many people with dry wells have no running water.
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Porterville and Cutler-Orosi have the highest concentrations of well failures in Tulare County. Officials want hard data to back up what they’ve heard about the drought leading to a public health disaster. Analysis of the data will take several weeks.
A recent series in The Bee detailed the effect of the drought on physical and mental health. In East Porterville, residents and experts said not having running water and breathing increasingly dusty air has worsened pre-existing health issues and contributed to the development of new ones.
State and county officials mainly want to find out how residents access help. They also want to understand changes in physical or mental health due to the drought and changes in household behaviors, such as conservation.
Volunteers asked randomly selected residents 34 questions about how the drought has negatively affected their property, finances and health. Some questions were pointed, such as whether a chronic medical condition has worsened because of the drought, or whether anyone has skipped meals because there isn’t enough money for food.
David Rozell, Tulare County’s public health emergency preparedness manager, led the survey. He said the report will yield evidence the county can reference when applying for state or federal funding. It will also help illuminate types of services the county could increase.
“It’s a better idea of what we are doing right and what more could we be doing to help the community,” he said.
The survey was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public health and emergency management officials to use during a disaster. It uses statistics and draws from a small portion of residents to reflect a broad population. Napa County officials used it following the 6.0 magnitude earthquake last year to assess the extent of the injuries and the degree of disaster preparedness.
State public health officer Dr. Karen Smith invited counties to collaborate with the California Department of Public Health on the surveys. Mariposa County will administer it next week.
Merced and Madera counties had expressed interest in the survey but dropped their plans. Officials at Merced County said they didn’t have enough time to pull it together.
State officials did not respond to questions about cost, funding and timing.
Mariposa and Tulare county leaders said the state provided $10,000 to offset the costs of the survey. Tulare County leaders said they were first approached by the state on Aug. 30.
Smith said the state has not identified specific changes in health status attributed to the drought. That’s not counting West Nile virus infections last year, which the state documented as one of the highest years on record, likely due to the drought.
“This does not mean that other health impacts (e.g., other infectious diseases, exacerbation of chronic respiratory conditions, mental health impacts, etc.) are not occurring,” she said, “only that they were not identified at state and county levels.”
This is the first time the method has been used to survey drought effects anywhere in the nation.
Residents of rural Valley towns like Cutler-Orosi and East Porterville already face significant barriers. Most are Latino and many are immigrants with less than a high school diploma, living below the federal poverty level. Contaminated water and polluted air lead to shorter lives.
The Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency has identified more than 700 people affected by the drought. Data about their health issues don’t exist yet, but experts have strong reason to believe in a growing crisis.
Dr. Jaisi Sidhu of Sequoia Family Medical Center in Porterville spends more time each day treating people with respiratory conditions. She told The Bee in June that more patients arrive with urinary tract and skin infections from lack of water and decreased sanitation. Others have coughs that last for weeks.
At Sierra View Medical Center in Porterville, the number of patients visiting the emergency room primarily complaining of breathing issues increased by more than 25 percent since 2010.
And Dr. Karen Haught, Tulare County health officer, said the mental well-being of residents has been hit hard.
“The biggest effect is the stress on daily life to have to use an alternate means to get water,” she said. That stress can escalate to anxiety, depression and a host of other mental conditions.