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Operation Lone Star: Emergency preparedness exercise in South Texas

Partnership exercise brings free health services to South Texas and improves civilian-military cooperation

Texas A&M Health Science Center is participating in Operation Lone Star, an emergency preparedness exercise in South Texas, from July 23 through 27 and across four locations. Operation Lone Star provides civilian and military emergency responders with an opportunity to work together to practice operating temporary emergency clinics similar to what may be used in a public health emergency. In addition to serving as a training exercise, the event brings free health care to areas of South Texas where access to care can be difficult. Last year’s clinics provided more than 40,000 services—including child immunizations, dental services, hearing and vision screenings, diabetes and blood pressure screenings, and even sports physicals—to more than 8,000 people. This year, 9,346 patients received 43,005 health services across all six sites.

Operation Lone Star is a large undertaking, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Led by the Texas Department of State Health Services, it is a cooperative effort with the Texas Military Department, various county health departments and human services, many community volunteer organizations, and the Texas A&M Health Science Center. In short, it’s a collaborative effort benefiting patients both now and in the future.

All five colleges at the Health Science Center are involved in this exercise, where students will practice clinical, interprofessional, and population health skills, working alongside local, state and federal health providers. Additionally, students from the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Department of Food and Nutrition Science are participating to provide nutrition counseling to patients. Texas A&M students traveled from multiple locations to expand health care to those who may not otherwise have access, and also learn with, from, and about the various health professions.

The Texas A&M Health Science Center’s Office of Interprofessional Education & Research (IPER) is spearheading Texas A&M faculty and student participation

Altogether, 18 Texas A&M faculty and 56 students are participating in the program, assisting health care providers in delivering services and providing health education to the public. Faculty will be offering instruction, training and supervision to students who will be providing patient care and education at four of the six sites.

More than 50 nursing students attended Operation Lone Star alongside medical, dental, public health, pharmacy as well as nutrition and AgriLife students from Texas A&M. Regina Bentley, PhD, EdD, MSN, RN, CNE, assistant vice chancellor for health services for The Texas A&M University System, explained that nursing students as well as many others were volunteering their time, and that the experience “was purely one of service.”

“It was very inspirational to see military members, students, faculty and community volunteers all give of their time and effort in South Texas. It was a true example of the Aggie core values in action.”

IPER has provided pre-event training related to interprofessional collaboration and an orientation to Operation Lone Star so that Texas A&M participants can be fully aware of the exercise prior to their departure. The office has also developed a post-exercise program evaluation to further improve faculty and student participation in future exercises. Christine Kaunas, MPH, executive director of IPER, has coordinated the student and faculty involvement.

“The Health Science Center’s collaboration with local and state agencies involved in this exercise not only allows us to provide much needed patient care for these underserved communities, but we can also provide an exceptional training opportunity for our students—some of whom may return to the same locations to establish their careers,” Kaunas said. “It will also deepen our relationship with these agencies so that additional collaborations may ensue.”

This year, Operation Lone Star will hold six sites at La Feria High School in Cameron County, Rivera EC High School in Brownsville, Nixon High School in Hidalgo County, PSJA High School in San Juan, Juarez-Lincoln High School in Mission and AC2E Magnet Elementary in Rio Grande City. All clinics will be open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Texas A&M will have a presence at the Brownsville, La Feria, Laredo and San Juan sites.

“We can think of our involvement in this program as a stepping stone from Disaster Day, which has simulated patients. Participation in this program, which has real patients, increases transformative learning opportunities for our students, directs our focus on military and rural health, and facilitates development of interprofessional programming across all colleges,” Kaunas said. “Our students can further develop their skills for patient-centered, collaborative practice that improves patient and population health outcomes.”

Operation Lone Star also tests the identified capabilities and related preparedness of local and state entities. Beginning as an exercise to assess civil-military readiness in medical capabilities, it now has the entire Health Science Center as a participant, ensuring that future health care providers are prepared to deliver medical services in a civilian-military response.

“We are engaging in a systemic effort to participate in Operation Lone Star, and our level of involvement has essentially quintupled from previous years. By elevating our footprint, we can provide more students for future exercises and incorporate lessons from Operation Lone Star into other similar events as well as our college curricula,” Kaunas said. “In classrooms, students can learn about health issues in the borderlands or learn Spanish that is customized for health professions to practice in those areas. Out of classroom exercises like this help bring it all together, and by approaching our involvement holistically we can immediately help improve health care in the region, and improve the education of the next generation of health care leaders.”

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