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Addressing the Diabetes Epidemic in the USVI: A Call for Urgent Action

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At a recent meeting convened by the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services, the growing epidemic of diabetes within the U.S. Virgin Islands was thrust into the spotlight, revealing a critical need for immediate public health interventions. Julia Sheen, the executive director of the Virgin Islands Diabetes Center of Excellence (VIDCOE), delivered alarming statistics, positioning diabetes as the sixth leading cause of death in the territory, with over 12,000 residents currently afflicted.

Sheen highlighted lifestyle factors such as insufficient exercise and poor dietary habits as key contributors to the territory’s diabetes rates. Although women are predominantly represented in these statistics, Sheen suggests this may mask an underreporting issue among men. A notable gap in data concerning diabetic children in the USVI prompted questions from Senator Diane Capehart, to which Sheen admitted the absence of comprehensive data on youth, emphasizing a significant blind spot in the territory’s public health strategy.

The absence of specific data notwithstanding, Sheen underscored the urgent need for targeted educational programs aimed at children, particularly those overweight or obese, to curb the onset of diabetes. In support of this preventive approach, Senator Milton Potter relayed a citizen’s proposal for screening all fourth graders for prediabetic conditions, subject to parental consent and available funding.

The discussion also turned to the scarcity of public facilities conducive to exercise, a crucial preventive measure against diabetes. Senator Kenneth Gittens critiqued the reliance on private sector support for creating walkable spaces, instead advocating for government-led initiatives to improve and maintain public recreational facilities. He lamented the demolition of Arthur A Richards Junior High School, which had provided a range of recreational resources to the community, and emphasized the importance of accessible, well-maintained sidewalks to support a healthy lifestyle.

The committee unanimously recognized the need for a collaborative approach to combating diabetes, involving multiple government departments, including Education and Human Services. The financial strain of diabetes management, costing the territory approximately $120 million annually, underscores the urgency of these interventions. This collective resolve marks a pivotal step toward addressing the diabetes crisis in the USVI, aiming to safeguard the health and wellbeing of its citizens through comprehensive public health strategies and infrastructure improvements.

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Governor Bryan Pushes for Urgent Legislation to Address Medicaid Fund Shortfall

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Governor Albert Bryan announced on Monday that the territory has exhausted its funds for the local Medicaid match, prompting Government House to submit draft legislation to the Senate seeking an additional $3 million for this purpose.

Despite the fiscal shortfall, Governor Bryan views the situation as a sign of increased healthcare access. “We’re having so many people access care,” he stated, highlighting that during the pandemic, nearly 40,000 individuals utilized Medicaid for services including braces, dental care, and various medical appointments. Furthermore, eased referral requirements have facilitated access to specialty care. “Before, you had to go to East End or Frederiksted Health Center for a referral; now, a regular doctor can refer you,” Bryan explained.

These expanded services and simplified processes have rapidly depleted the Medicaid matching funds. However, Governor Bryan does not foresee this as a recurring issue, predicting stabilization next year. He noted that the V.I. Department of Human Services has already reduced some services, which has led to a decrease in Medicaid enrollment.

The proposed $3 million allocation remains critical for Virgin Islanders. Governor Bryan emphasized its importance, pointing to the recent U.S. Department of Defense Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) Program health fair, where medics served over 2,500 people seeking no-cost healthcare services. Although 6,000 people applied, many were turned away due to limited resources. The governor stressed that healthcare costs for uninsured residents ultimately fall on the territory, whether through Medicaid or hospital services.

The effort to secure adequate Medicaid funding is ongoing. In 2019, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett successfully obtained an additional $252 million for the territory in a fiscal year 2020 spending bill, raising the federal match from 55% to 83%. This increased match rate, initially set to expire in 2021, has been made permanent, ensuring the territory receives the highest possible Medicaid match in the U.S.

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Measles Outbreaks Prompt Vaccination Drive in U.S. Virgin Islands

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As measles outbreaks rise across the United States and the Caribbean, U.S. Virgin Islands Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion is urging parents to prioritize their children’s vaccination schedules.

Commissioner Encarnacion voiced her concerns this week about the alarmingly low vaccination rates among children in the territory, emphasizing the imminent threat of measles. “We are very concerned about the low childhood vaccine rate in the Territory, especially with measles threatening the US,” she said. Currently, only 60 percent of USVI children are vaccinated, a situation worsened by an increasing number of parents seeking vaccination exemptions.

The urgency is underscored by the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control, which reports weekly on measles outbreaks. As of June 6, 2024, there have been 151 measles cases across 22 jurisdictions, including Arizona, California, Florida, and New York, with over half resulting in hospitalizations.

The infectiousness of measles is a significant concern for the V.I. Department of Health. “While 151 may seem like a low number, it is alarming because one person can infect nine to ten others,” Encarnacion explained. She also highlighted the risk of the disease spreading to the USVI and neighboring regions, noting that the Turks and Caicos Islands reported their first measles cases since 1991 this past May.

In response, the Department of Health launched the “Be Wise, Immunize” campaign earlier this year. This initiative aims to educate parents about the vital importance of vaccinations, stressing that immunization is the best defense against diseases like measles both in childhood and later in life.

The primary defense against measles is the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which provides long-lasting protection against all strains of the virus. Measles can lead to severe health complications, particularly in children under five, including pneumonia and encephalitis.

Measles is highly contagious, spreading through the air via coughs or sneezes from infected individuals. It remains active in the air or on surfaces for up to two hours. Symptoms typically appear seven to 14 days after exposure and include high fever, cough, runny nose, red watery eyes, and a characteristic rash.

Although declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, measles continues to persist globally and is often brought into the U.S. by unvaccinated travelers.

The VI Department of Health is urging parents to ensure their children are vaccinated and provides resources for scheduling immunization appointments at www.doh.vi.gov/immunization.

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Douglas Koch to Lead Kearney Regional Medical Center in Nebraska

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Just a day after announcing his resignation from the Juan F. Luis Hospital (JFL) on St. Croix, CEO Douglas Koch has been named the new CEO of Kearney Regional Medical Center in Nebraska. He will assume his new role on August 5, according to a report from KSNB Local 4.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Koch cited a desire to return to the Midwest to be closer to his family. His departure has been a significant loss for local health officials, with JFL Board Chair Chris Finch expressing disappointment. Mr. Finch, who also chairs the Territorial Hospital Board of Directors, highlighted Mr. Koch’s exemplary service, noting that he had recently received an excellent personnel evaluation from board members.

Koch’s new role in Nebraska is eagerly anticipated by his future colleagues. John Woodrich, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Bryan Health, which owns Kearney Regional, praised Koch’s midwestern roots, education, and extensive operational experience as ideal for the position. “Doug’s commitment to community health and his leadership skills will be a tremendous asset to Kearney Regional Medical Center,” said Woodrich.

Before his tenure in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Koch held leadership positions in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. At Kearney Regional, he will oversee the expansion of inpatient facilities and the construction of a cancer center, similar to his work with JFL’s transition to a temporary modular structure. Woodrich emphasized Koch’s ability to help communities thrive, stating, “He will be an outstanding leader for Kearney Regional Medical Center.”

As Mr. Koch prepares to embark on his new journey, JFL officials now face the task of finding a new CEO to lead the hospital forward.

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