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Strengthening Community Health Planning During COVID-19 in New Mexico

Community Voices for Health Spotlight

Strengthening Community Health Planning During COVID-19 in New Mexico

The rapid spread of COVID-19 overwhelmed many healthcare institutions, putting local communities and healthcare providers in a precarious situation. New Mexico’s statewide network of health councils*, tasked with community health planning, were one the first responders to the COVID-19 pandemic in the state. The New Mexico Culture of Health initiative, led by the New Mexico Alliance of Health Councils (NMAHC) and Presbyterian Health Services, supported several health councils in an equitable approach to COVID-19 response and, later, vaccine equity. Under Culture of Health, NMAHC works with seven health councils – 1 tribal and 6 county councils – to actualize community health planning, and organizational capacity building. New Mexico Culture of Health is one of the six state grant recipients in the  Community Voices for Health initiative.

The Culture of Health project was intended to support equitable engagement practices around health planning by health councils servicing county- and tribal-based communities; at the project’s launch, health councils faced an increased need for support following the COVID-19 pandemic in the state. NMAHC and other Culture of Health partners quickly pivoted the project to support COVID-19 moving from a face to face to a virtual work environment.

Participating health councils engaged in training sessions using the  community-based participatory research (CBPR) model as a framework for thinking about how to move from context, to creating  partnerships, then implementing and intervention that leads to an outcome. Each council attended training sessions around the knowledge, skills, and tools needed to implement a community health improvement plan that consisted of two parts: data to action planning and policy to action planning. These sessions, and additional support from the Culture of Health team, provided the foundation for health councils to launch the Culture of Health work in the coming year. The CBPR model aided health councils to shape “policy to action plans” around relevant health priorities to be actualized through research, stakeholder engagement, and policy advocacy.

This past year, health councils have taken the reins on deepening and expanding the work in their communities. Health councils unearth community needs through stakeholder engagement and data considerations to identify priorities in the area. Due to the geographical and cultural variations of health councils’ service areas, each council looks towards their own community to identify health concerns and opportunities for community improvement and growth. Culture of Health partner Center for Health Innovation provides data dashboards for all 42 health councils in New Mexico, detailing several categories of community-level data for health and equity considerations.

Using community input and relevant data, health councils are pursuing sustainable policy change in their communities. Participating health councils are addressing community needs including transportation, housing, social justice, and vaping. This hyper-local approach to policy change is prompted by the ability of health councils to work closely with many pockets of the community and get to the root of health inequity more efficiently as community-based institutions.

“We wanted to have self determination as a focus and really engage communities to identify and solve the problems and health issues in their communities and to connect broadly to other sectors of the community as they address community health priorities.”

Sharon Finarelli, Executive Director, New Mexico Alliance of Health Councils

In the Pueblo of Acoma Health Council, the team continued their vaccine equity work and reduced the impact of COVID-19 into the second year of the project. Kari Vallo, Health Educator at the Pueblo of Acoma Health and Human Services Division, and the Pueblo of Acoma Health Council team were tasked with implementing and supporting COVID-19 protocol and community education around COVID-19 and its vaccine.

“For us [Pueblo of Acoma Health Council], Culture of Health has really helped us expand our viewpoints and our areas of focus. You know, we said, ‘We want to help the community’ – it was our main goal, and then it turned into, ‘Well, we want to help all the populations of the community.’ We want to make sure that we’re able to serve all the members of our community and make sure that they’re being heard, and they’re being addressed.”

Kari Vallo, Health Educator, Pueblo Acoma Health and Human Services Division

The work on the Pueblo of Acoma continues as the local hospital in the area has transitioned into a clinic, cutting access to nearby health services. The Pueblo of Acoma team and community health representatives have been guiding the transition of the former hospital into a clinic and supporting community members in addressing the concerns around heath access and equity. Despite the difficulties that evolved during COVID-19, the Pueblo of Acoma have found strength in banding together to protect and empower their community.

“Some of the good things that happened is the formation of our clinic […] and how our health council really stepped up to the plate to not only assign, but give people responsibilities to be leaders within the community. I’m very proud of our CHRs [community health responders] they’re one of our frontline workers, alongside EMS public safety, they were the ones to basically care for the community during combat.”

Kari Vallo, Health Educator, Pueblo Acoma Health and Human Services Division

The unforeseen impact of COVID-19 may have stalled the initial goals of the Culture of Health project, however, each council has recognized the opportunity to develop innovative hybrid approaches to policy and advocacy work. The vaccine equity work done by the Culture of Health project throughout the state has secured additional support through the New Mexico Department of Health and Center for Disease Control to continue vaccine equity efforts in New Mexico.

“The Health Council system now is very different than it was two years ago. […] they’re accomplishing more there, they’re stronger leaders in their communities. They’re really focused proactively on health equity. And that’s being noticed by state leaders.”

Anne Egan, New Ventures Community Building

The NMAHC, Culture of Health partners, and health councils have been able to demonstrate the potential of health councils through community-led research, capacity development, genuine teamwork and passion for New Mexico’s vast and varied communities. Sharon Finarelli says that community collaboration is key to addressing the systemic challenges that communities face.

* What is a Health Council?

Health councils, established in 1991 by the New Mexico legislature, help communities organize to identify and focus on local health priorities (tribal health councils were later added to the legislation). Using published health data and local information, they produce detailed assessments of local health needs and resources which are used at the state and local level. More information about county and tribal health councils can be found here. 

** What is a CBPR model?

The CBPR model provides a cyclical community planning, research, and evaluation framework that guides the ever changing context and needs of a community. 

For more information about Community Voices for Health, click here.

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