Incorporating climate change into state public health policy in Virginia
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is in the beginning stages of incorporating climate change impacts into its public health programs through its newly established Climate Change Committee (C-3). Other Virginia agencies and organizations are also incorporating public health considerations into climate actions.
Major climate impacts of concern for Virginia include extreme heat, sea level rise, inland and coastal flooding, warmer temperatures leading to increased ground ozone, and extreme weather events. These impacts pose risks to human health as they may increase issues such as heat-related illness or death, the spread of vector- and water-borne diseases, severity and occurrence of asthma and other pulmonary conditions, and the potential displacement of communities and exacerbation of inequities in access to healthcare services.
The VDH does not have an official climate action or adaptation plan. However, the state’s 2008 climate action plan identifies public health concerns. The plan highlights physical and behavioral health concerns, particularly among highly vulnerable communities. The plan calls for a network of institutions to monitor climate change impacts on human health, as well as increased disease surveillance and monitoring by VDH, strengthening of emergency response measures, increased public education and outreach, as well as implementation of vector control programs. Other efforts include Virginia’s 2018 Hazard Mitigation Plan, which covers risks related to extreme heat and flooding events while highlighting some health impacts; Executive Order 24, signed in 2018 by Governor Northam of Virginia, which calls for increasing Virginia’s resilience to sea level rise and natural hazards; and the partnership between VDH Portsmouth District in the Hampton Roads Region and the National Association of County and City Health Officials to examine the effects of climate change on public health in the state.
Virginia Department of Public Health and Climate Discussions
In January 2019, VDH created C-3 with the specific purpose of addressing public health response to climate change issues. C-3 began as a result of a “listening tour” by Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver. One subject brought up by stakeholders and community representatives during the tour was that of climate change impacts on individuals. VDH is in the resource acquisition and intradepartmental evaluation phase of understanding where it stands as an agency on the topic of climate change and how it can address these public concerns. The goals of C-3 include developing a report with climate response recommendations for Virginia stakeholders and becoming a trusted source of information regarding climate change and public health for the communities of Virginia. There is no set funding source for C-3 or its work as of date, however current investigations are underway to facilitate funding opportunities in order to sustain these efforts in the long term.
The entire state of Virginia is the focal area for C-3 and its future reports and projects. However, Virginia has certain geographic features that may determine where particular climate change impacts could be the most severe. For example, a large portion of the state contains coastal lands vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding. C-3 has not issued a formal plan or agenda, however, climate change and health risks under discussion include air pollution and increased allergens, vector ecology and diseases, harmful algal blooms, sea level rise, extreme weather, water temperature increases, and inland flooding. Other areas of concern for VDH involve the exacerbation of chronic diseases, displaced and vulnerable populations, behavioral health challenges associated with extreme weather and population displacement, and general economic and social impacts on communities. VDH and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management plan to partner to address these and other concerns such as the exacerbation of chronic diseases (e.g., cardiovascular predispositions, congestive heart failures).
The priority actions of C-3 include identifying resources within VDH and evaluating departmental capacity. Next steps involve identifying public and private sector community partners. C-3 has so far been guided by expert advice from within VDH, the nonprofit Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, and the Commissioner’s Public Health Advisory Council, a coalition of Masters of Public Health program representatives from across the state. Other partners that VDH has collaborated or would like to collaborate with on public health and climate response integration include the Virginia Institute for Marine Science, Science Museum of Virginia, universities across the Commonwealth, and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. VDH is guiding its discussion and planning processes by applying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework, a step-by-step program to guide health officials in climate change and public health preparedness.
Outcomes and Conclusions
The current challenges that face the committee and the development of a climate change and health plan include obtaining reliable information, securing long-term funding, and staffing capacity. The VDH C-3 seeks to be a source of information for Virginians and to be recognized as such when it comes to health information, planning, and response. C-3 is continuing to engage and identify community partners and hopes to hold a summit with community partners regarding climate change and related impacts on public health. The results of the summit will be used in the development of the Virginia Health Impacts of Climate Change Response Plan.
Braddock KN. 2019. Incorporating climate change into state public health policy in Virginia [Case study on a project of the Virginia Department of Health]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: https://www.cakex.org/case-studies/incorporating-climate-change-state-public-health-policy-virginia (Last updated June 2019)