By Kara MacKeil, Associate Specialist, Public Health Preparedness and Response, APHL
When was the last time you went on an evening hayride at a meeting, or had homemade barbecue brisket for dinner? If you’re part of the Texas Laboratory Response Network (LRN), it wasn’t that long ago.
Everything really is bigger in Texas, and the Texas slice of the LRN is no exception. Texas has ten member laboratories at the Reference Level, and those labs work extensively with organizations such as the Texas State Chemist, the Brooke Army Medical Center, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This makes for a large, varied network of people and, while conference calls have their place, once a year or so the Texas Department of State Health Services (TX-DSHS) convenes these laboratories and other partners for an in-person meeting. It’s a great chance for the laboratories to address issues specific to Texas, share successes and problems, and build relationships for a stronger network. I was lucky enough to be invited to observe the meeting this year, along with two other APHL staff members, Chris Mangal, director of public health preparedness and response (PHPR), and Peter Kyriacopoulos, senior director of public policy.
Texans being Texans, this meeting doesn’t take place at some sterile airport hotel. As you might guess from the aforementioned hayrides and barbecue, this meeting was held at a dude ranch, specifically the Mayan Ranch of Bandera, TX. Far from being distracting, the relative isolation of the ranch completely cuts out the usual attrition to local tourist spots. And unlike meetings in big cities, the cost is low and there’s only one place (and time) for meals and limited activities for your evenings, so you end up spending a lot more time with your fellow attendees than you might otherwise. It’s all Texas laboratory talk, all the time, and the end result is a lot more brainstorming than you often get at large meetings.
Like any state, the laboratories of Texas have some unique challenges and it was interesting to learn more about them. One issue that never occurred to me as a native New Englander was fertilizer control. Texas is a big agricultural state so there are plenty of farmers who need fertilizer for their soil, but it can also be used for bomb-making. To prevent this, the Texas State Chemist’s office has put some very strict controls in place to limit who can buy this fertilizer and in what quantities. Only certain dealers are allowed to sell it, and when they encounter any customer who seems suspicious, they can call the Chemist’s office to get a second opinion. Incidentally, the Texas State Chemist is authorized to make arrests.
Another benefit to this meeting was that some of the lesser-known laboratories and agencies were able to re-introduce themselves to the rest of the network and emphasize the services and help they’re able to offer. In addition to the Texas State Chemist, we saw some great presentations from the Chemical Threat Laboratory for the Texas Department of State Health Services, as well as presenters from the nearby Brooke Army Medical Center, the National Guard 6th Civil Support Team, and Texas-office FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator. Turnover can be high in public health, so reminders like this are valuable to maintain current information and contacts.
Key takeaways from this meeting:
- The LRN is strong across Texas with the Austin laboratory being a central resource
- The LRN does more than terrorism preparedness – laboratories are actively engaged in influenza surveillance and other routine public health activities
- Inexpensive in-person meetings in isolated locations are great ways to network
- And things really are bigger in Texas!