San Antonio Report board welcomes new chairman in new year

San Antonio Report board welcomes new chairman in new year

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here

The turning of the calendar brought a turn in leadership to the San Antonio Report’s board of directors. A.J. Rodriguez ascended to board chairman late last month, after John “Chico” Newman Jr. stepped down from that position and the board after more than five years.

The changes went into effect at the board’s Jan. 25 meeting.

Rodriguez joined the board in 2020, after briefly serving on the San Antonio Report’s Board of Community Advisors. Founding Vice Chair Newman, who served as chairman for a year, decided to retire from the board because he believes the organization needs a fresh set of eyes. Newman served on the board since its inception, when the San Antonio Report, founded in 2012, reorganized as a nonprofit in 2016.

The change in board leadership comes three months after the board named Angie Mock publisher and CEO of the nonprofit news organization, replacing co-founder Robert Rivard, who continues to serve as editor and lead columnist. Mock previously served as CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of San Antonio and had been a member of the San Antonio Report’s board since 2018.

“We are deeply grateful for Chico’s vision, dedication, and passion that led us from a blog to a thriving nonprofit news organization,” Mock said. “Equally, I’m excited about what the future holds with A.J.’s leadership. A.J. brings a wealth of nonprofit success and strategic vision to the San Antonio Report.”

Rodriguez joined the nonprofit Texas 2036 in September 2020 as the executive vice president. Texas 2036 is a nonpartisan organization that provides research-based solutions to make Texas a better place for all residents by the state’s bicentennial. Before that, he served as vice president of external affairs and on the executive leadership team of Zachry Group, a privately held construction and engineering business. Rodriguez also served as the deputy city manager for the City of San Antonio from 2008 to 2011.

This experience makes Rodriguez the best fit to lead the board of directors as the San Antonio Report continues to evolve, Newman said.

“He is the right person at the right time,” Newman said. “You really can’t be any better than the leadership of an organization. With the combination of Angie and A.J., the San Antonio Report has outstanding leadership.”

A longtime fan of the San Antonio Report, Rodriguez said he joined the Board of Community Advisors and then the board of directors because he truly believes in the organization’s mission.

“I’ve felt compelled to participate in any way I could to support the mission of the organization,” he said.

Retired SBC Southwestern Bell President Wayne Alexander is the vice chair and treasurer of the board, while San Antonio Report founder and Editor Rivard serves as secretary. Other board directors include Teach for America Chief People Officer Laura Saldivar Luna, attorney Brian Steward, former Rackspace Community Affairs Director Cara Nichols, and Dr. Erika Gonzalez, CEO, president, and co-founder of South Texas Allergy and Asthma Professionals. Kate Rogers, a longtime H-E-B executive and the former vice president of community outreach and engagement for the Charles Butt Foundation, rounds out the eight-member board.

As the new board chairman, Rodriguez said he wants to serve as a resource for the organization, to help grow and develop the San Antonio Report at “an increasingly rapid rate,” and to maintain the high standards of journalism it upholds. He also said he is excited to work with Mock as she carries the organization forward under her leadership.

“There’s nowhere to go but up,” Rodriguez said.

Looking back over the past five years, Newman said he could not agree more. If someone had told him five years ago that the San Antonio Report would be where it is today, he would have said that was “aspirational.”

“For a small group, we punch way above our weight,” he said.

Newman has watched the organization evolve from just a handful of people to a staff of 20, from a small startup to a professional organization. He said the shifts in leadership are part of the same evolution for the San Antonio Report and will help further its mission to build a more informed community.

“We should constantly be learning, evolving, and getting better – and we have,” he said. “The organization has come a long way in five and a half years.”

San Antonio Report Staff

SAN ANTONIO REPORT STAFF

This article was assembled by various members of the San Antonio Report staff. 

Three named to San Antonio Report board of directors

Three named to San Antonio Report board of directors

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here.

The San Antonio Report board of directors has elected three new directors.

Confirmed during a board meeting on Monday, the three new directors are Dr. Erika Gonzalez, Cara Nichols, and A.J. Rodriguez. They will begin serving at the Oct. 28 board meeting.

With the addition of these new members, the San Antonio Report board, which provides oversight of the nonprofit news organization, better reflects the ethnic and gender makeup of the San Antonio community, said board Chairman John “Chico” Newman.

“I truly am very excited about these three individuals,” Newman said. “They’re just going to make the board a lot better – just having different perspectives is really important. The better we can be in the boardroom, the better off it is for the organization and for San Antonio.”

The additions expand the board to 10 members and follow the Aug. 10 renaming of the San Antonio Report that occurred during its eighth year as a local news source.

“The San Antonio Report continues to be my go-to news source for high-quality, timely, well-researched, thorough local updates on important community activity,” said Rodriguez, who is executive vice president of the nonprofit think tank Texas 2036. “I’m thrilled to participate on the board to support the publication’s ongoing growth and commitment to excellent service for our readers.”

Prior to his recent appointment at Texas 2036, Rodriguez was vice president of external affairs at the San Antonio-based Zachry Group.

A former director of community affairs for Rackspace Technology, Nichols said the San Antonio Report continues to lead the way in creating an informed citizenry with integrity, relevance, and credibility. “I am honored to join the board of such an outstanding organization and to continue to advocate for San Antonians to be aware of, and take an active role in, our city’s progress,” she said.

Nichols serves on the board of the employee-funded Rackspace Foundation and previously served as editor of a high-end lifestyle magazine, C San Antonio. She is currently writing a book.

A physician and 2020 chairwoman of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Gonzalez said she is joining the board during a time when people are looking in many places for news and information, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The San Antonio Report’s nonprofit approach to news is helping our community receive their news in an equitable way,” Gonzalez said. “I am excited to join the board of directors for a news source that has earned the respect of San Antonians.”

Newman, an investor and president of the John and Florence Newman Family Foundation, began his term as chairman of the board in February. He succeeded founding Chairman Richard “Dick” T. Schlosberg III, who is now chairman of the San Antonio Report’s Board of Community Advisors, an advisory group of 20 nonvoting members established in July.

Newman said the significant changes happening within the organization in the last year have been in the works long before now. “It just so happens it’s all coming together right about now,” he said. “The steps we’re taking now will make us successful and sustainable in the future – that’s the game plan.”

Retired AT&T executive Wayne Alexander is vice chairman of the board, and other board officers include treasurer Angie Mock, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio, and Robert Rivard, the San Antonio Report’s publisher and editor who serves as the board’s secretary.

“The addition of these three outstanding community leaders will give the San Antonio Report a more diverse and representative board of directors,” Rivard said Monday.

Rounding out the San Antonio Report board are Kate Rogers, vice president of community outreach and engagement for the Charles Butt Foundation; Laura Saldivar Luna, chief people officer for Teach for America; and trial attorney Brian Steward.

Board members serve for three years with the opportunity to renew for a second three-year term.

The San Antonio Report, founded in 2012 as the Rivard Report, reorganized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2015.

Shari Biediger

SHARI BIEDIGER

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report. 

Friday at San Antonio CityFest

Friday at San Antonio CityFest

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here.

City policing, access to health equity, and the future of San Antonio drive Friday’s conversations on San Antonio CityFest’s final day of civic engagement events.

The third annual San Antonio CityFest, a virtual urban ideas festival, runs through Friday. Its weeklong lineup of events, panel discussions, and entertainment features an array of topics including public health, business and job growth, transportation and development, and recovery from the economic and health crisis of the coronavirus pandemic.

All CityFest 2020 programming is free and open to the public, with pre-registration required. Once attendees are registered they will receive an email giving them access to the festival web app. Registered attendees are also invited to download the Whova app for more opportunities to network, ask the panelists questions, and take the festival anywhere they go.

10 a.m.

San Antonio Report Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick speaks with Elizabeth Provencio, the City of San Antonio’s first assistant city attorney; Michael R. Smith, criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio; Oji Martin, founder of Fix SAPD; and Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, for a panel on “Policing in San Antonio.

11 a.m.

San Antonio Poet Laureate Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson” and The Foreign Arm come together for a lively poetic performance, followed by a conversation with San Antonio Report Arts and Culture Reporter Nicholas Frank on the inspiration behind their work.

Noon

A panel on “Health Equity in South Texas” where city leaders and health professionals discuss the community’s joint effort to provide equitable access to health care.

San Antonio Report Managing Editor Graham Watson-Ringo is joined by Dr. Somava Saha, Well Being In the Nation Network executive lead; Dr. Colleen Bridger, City of San Antonio assistant city manager; Dr. Erika Gonzalez, South Texas Allergy & Asthma Medical Professionals president and CEO; and Jaime Wesolowski, Methodist Healthcare Ministries president and CEO.

2:30 p.m.

San Antonio Report Photo Editor Scott Ball and staff photographer Bonnie Arbittier will co-moderate “Photojournalism During a Public Health Crisis” – a discussion with Bria Woods, executive producer at KAVU-TV in Victoria, and photographer Chris Lee about how the pandemic has prompted new ways of documenting current events.

3:30 p.m.

For the final event of San Antonio CityFest, San Antonio Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard moderates a conversation with city leaders in “Future of the City.”

Panelists include Brian Dillard, City of San Antonio chief innovation officer; John Burnam, Burnam | Gray co-founder and principal; Ximena Alvarez, U.S. Census Bureau media specialist; Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, San Antonio Economic Development Foundation president and chief executive officer; and Alex Birnel, MOVE Texas advocacy manager.

The full schedule is available here.

Samantha Ruvalcaba

SAMANTHA RUVALCABA

Samantha Ruvalcaba, who grew up in San Antonio, is a Shiner intern and junior at St. Mary’s University studying international and global studies with a minor in communications. 

CityFest: Turning redlining into ‘greenlining’ with health equity

CityFest: Turning redlining into ‘greenlining’ with health equity

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here

Take a 1930s map of San Antonio’s redlined communities – used to avoid “hazardous” loans in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods – and compare it with a map of families currently living below the poverty level and coronavirus cases. A disturbing pattern emerges: structural racism in action.

Across the country, communities of color have been disproportionally impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in terms of economic and health outcomes, said Dr. Somava Saha, executive lead of Well Being in the Nation Network. “If you look at those places, what you’ll see is that they lack the underlying conditions of [a successful] place,” such as a clean environment, healthy food, and access to health care.

Depending on how communities handle the pandemic, Saha said, “this is either a moment where we are going to erase those red lines or … we’re creating the future redlining maps. … That’s the charge for all of us in this moment in history, is to think about how we use this moment to ‘greenline’ the areas that have been redlined.”

The City of San Antonio’s response and recovery plan is aimed at erasing those lines, said Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager and interim director of Metropolitan Health District. “Literally everything we’re doing is steeped in a focus on equity. … I love calling it greenlining.”

Saha and Bridger spoke during a panel discussion on Friday as part of the San Antonio Report’s five-day urban ideas festival CityFest. They were joined by Erika Gonzalez, president and CEO of South Texas Allergy & Asthma Medical Professionals, and Jaime Wesolowski, president and CEO of Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, to discuss Saha’s keynote address on health equity and possible paths forward.

Saha, who is a primary care doctor and public health practitioner, likened public health to a fire.

“We [could be] the best-organized bucket brigade trying to put out a fire, [but] there is a tanker full of gasoline going into the fire at the same time,” Saha said.

Similarly, doctors typically address the patient in front of them but not the underlying cause of the illness, she added. “What would it take for us to strategically shift those underlying things in the environment that are driving poor outcomes?”

These maps show (from left) racial segregation via redlining policies, poverty, and coronavirus cases in San Antonio.
These maps show (from left) racial segregation via redlining policies, poverty, and coronavirus cases in San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / Dr. Somava Saha

Doctors treat children with asthma with medication – that’s an example of a “downstream” need, she said. But if someone digs further and finds out that their home has dust and mold that is causing the asthma, moving the child to a different home is a “mid-stream” solution.

“If we both remediate [substandard housing] and also create policies that make it possible for those places to [sustain] high-quality housing – and often mixed-income housing – then we begin to change the underlying legacies of disinvestment that got us here,” Saha said. That’s one of the so-called “upstream” solutions.

Saha is working with Methodist Healthcare Ministries to formulate an equity plan for the hospital system to address internal equity and start looking outside its traditional role of treating patients. The hospital system and nonprofit that serves 74 counties in South Texas is looking to broaden its scope to include upstream solutions.

“We need to evaluate not just health outcomes but those upstream social determinants of health … food, housing, education, the list goes on and on,” Wesolowski said. The nonprofit will undergo an internal equity, diversity, and inclusion audit starting next week.

This graphic shows how downstream, midstream, and upstream health interventions are connected.
This graphic shows how downstream, midstream, and upstream health interventions are connected. Credit: Courtesy / Dr. Somava Saha

This equity work will involve partnerships with local governments, businesses, nonprofits, and – most importantly – the underserved community, he said.

Door-to-door outreach to low-income communities of color is a priority in the City’s recovery plan, Bridger said, but one of the main barriers is trust.

“Redining happened in the ’30s and here we are today and we’re still seeing those same communities suffering from those same problems,” she said. “They don’t believe us when we say, ‘Oh yes, this time we’re going to help you.’ … The only way to build trust is by saying what you’re doing to do and then doing what you said you were going to do. We’re just now in that transition from the saying to the doing part.”

A key element to building that trust is forming relationships with neighborhood leaders and doctors who are established in those communities, Gonzalez said. Building those networks will help the city roll out its plans to stem the spread of coronavirus and help underserved populations take advantage of workforce development programs and other assistance that is available.

“We’ve often used the Promotoras with our health workers in the community who speak the language, who understand the culture, who look like the people they are trying to help,” she said.

That trust should work both ways, Saha said.

Successful programs that see 50 to 75 percent improvement in health outcomes “are often the ones that are led by or have substantial leadership by those people with lived experience of inequity.”

Health leaders need to trust that the community knows what it needs, she said.

Wesolowski, of Methodist Healthcare Ministries, has learned that an important piece of equity work is listening. “We can’t come in there and tell them what they really need.”

Iris Dimmick

IRIS DIMMICK

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org 

CityFest 2020: A weeklong festival of ideas focused on San Antonio’s resiliency

CityFest 2020: A weeklong festival of ideas focused on San Antonio’s resiliency

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here

The turning of the calendar brought a turn in leadership to the San Antonio Report’s board of directors. A.J. Rodriguez ascended to board chairman late last month, after John “Chico” Newman Jr. stepped down from that position and the board after more than five years.

The changes went into effect at the board’s Jan. 25 meeting.

Rodriguez joined the board in 2020, after briefly serving on the San Antonio Report’s Board of Community Advisors. Founding Vice Chair Newman, who served as chairman for a year, decided to retire from the board because he believes the organization needs a fresh set of eyes. Newman served on the board since its inception, when the San Antonio Report, founded in 2012, reorganized as a nonprofit in 2016.

The change in board leadership comes three months after the board named Angie Mock publisher and CEO of the nonprofit news organization, replacing co-founder Robert Rivard, who continues to serve as editor and lead columnist. Mock previously served as CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of San Antonio and had been a member of the San Antonio Report’s board since 2018.

“We are deeply grateful for Chico’s vision, dedication, and passion that led us from a blog to a thriving nonprofit news organization,” Mock said. “Equally, I’m excited about what the future holds with A.J.’s leadership. A.J. brings a wealth of nonprofit success and strategic vision to the San Antonio Report.”

Rodriguez joined the nonprofit Texas 2036 in September 2020 as the executive vice president. Texas 2036 is a nonpartisan organization that provides research-based solutions to make Texas a better place for all residents by the state’s bicentennial. Before that, he served as vice president of external affairs and on the executive leadership team of Zachry Group, a privately held construction and engineering business. Rodriguez also served as the deputy city manager for the City of San Antonio from 2008 to 2011.

This experience makes Rodriguez the best fit to lead the board of directors as the San Antonio Report continues to evolve, Newman said.

“He is the right person at the right time,” Newman said. “You really can’t be any better than the leadership of an organization. With the combination of Angie and A.J., the San Antonio Report has outstanding leadership.”

A longtime fan of the San Antonio Report, Rodriguez said he joined the Board of Community Advisors and then the board of directors because he truly believes in the organization’s mission.

“I’ve felt compelled to participate in any way I could to support the mission of the organization,” he said.

Retired SBC Southwestern Bell President Wayne Alexander is the vice chair and treasurer of the board, while San Antonio Report founder and Editor Rivard serves as secretary. Other board directors include Teach for America Chief People Officer Laura Saldivar Luna, attorney Brian Steward, former Rackspace Community Affairs Director Cara Nichols, and Dr. Erika Gonzalez, CEO, president, and co-founder of South Texas Allergy and Asthma Professionals. Kate Rogers, a longtime H-E-B executive and the former vice president of community outreach and engagement for the Charles Butt Foundation, rounds out the eight-member board.

As the new board chairman, Rodriguez said he wants to serve as a resource for the organization, to help grow and develop the San Antonio Report at “an increasingly rapid rate,” and to maintain the high standards of journalism it upholds. He also said he is excited to work with Mock as she carries the organization forward under her leadership.

“There’s nowhere to go but up,” Rodriguez said.

Looking back over the past five years, Newman said he could not agree more. If someone had told him five years ago that the San Antonio Report would be where it is today, he would have said that was “aspirational.”

“For a small group, we punch way above our weight,” he said.

Newman has watched the organization evolve from just a handful of people to a staff of 20, from a small startup to a professional organization. He said the shifts in leadership are part of the same evolution for the San Antonio Report and will help further its mission to build a more informed community.

“We should constantly be learning, evolving, and getting better – and we have,” he said. “The organization has come a long way in five and a half years.”

San Antonio Report Staff

SAN ANTONIO REPORT STAFF

This article was assembled by various members of the San Antonio Report staff. 

A mother’s death from COVID-19 leaves Hispanic Chamber leader ‘powerless’ but determined to help others

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here

Dr. Erika Gonzalez is a mother and a military veteran, a community leader on the rise, a practitioner in and owner of an allergy practice with three locations in San Antonio.

But the coronavirus outbreak has proved unsparing and, on Wednesday, Gonzalez will join her two sisters in reciting the rosary before laying to rest their mother, Laura Gonzalez, who died Aug. 13 from complications of COVID-19. She was 69.

Her death came despite the precautions she took to keep from contracting the virus and efforts by her physician daughter, her family, and the doctors to save her. Having connections to the medical community and knowledge of the health care system were not enough.

“You can bet that we did everything we could, no stone left unturned, no connection that I didn’t try to use,” Gonzalez said. “We were powerless.”

Now Gonzalez is keeping a watchful eye on her 80-year-old father, Heriberto, who is still hospitalized with the virus but appears to be recovering.

The couple fell ill within days of one another in mid-July. Unlike many victims of the virus, Laura’s symptoms did not include fever, a cough, body aches, or shortness of breath – the most common signs of coronavirus.

Only when she couldn’t eat due to persistent nausea and vomiting – and Laura’s daughters worried their mother could become dehydrated – was she diagnosed and hospitalized. By then, her blood oxygen levels were dangerously low even though she was not complaining of shortness of breath. Heriberto’s hospitalization followed a day later.

Within the week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added nausea and vomiting to the list of coronavirus symptoms, Gonzalez said.

Remembering a mother

Gonzalez describes Laura as the strongest woman she knows. As a young wife and mother who learned English watching daytime TV, Laura returned briefly to her home in Mexico to attend dental school, then rejoined her husband in the U.S. and started her own practice in a border town.

“I have great memories of going to work with my mom,” Gonzalez said of those years in which the seeds of her own medical career were planted.

But Laura was also devoted to her son with special needs and other medical conditions who required extra care and attention. “Not until I became a mom did I fully realize how hard that must have been to take care of a child with special needs and three other young girls and own a small business,” Gonzalez said. “It’s unbelievable to me, honestly.”

In Laura’s later years, following retirement and the death of their son, she took advantage of every day, especially to travel, Gonzalez said. “She lived it to the fullest and never let anything slow her down.”

But when the coronavirus outbreak began in March, Laura and Heriberto sheltered at home, only venturing out to the grocery store. Gonzalez doesn’t know how her parents contracted the virus.

Family advocates

Laura’s first coronavirus test came back negative but it soon became obvious she needed to be hospitalized.

“Like any other family, my two sisters and I were doing our best to advocate for my parents,” Gonzalez said. “We were in touch with all their physicians either because we knew them personally or knew someone who knew them.”

After her mother was intubated and put on a ventilator, the sisters decided to transfer the couple from a private hospital to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC). They hoped Laura could receive extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment at BAMC, one of only two local hospitals equipped for such care.

The hospital was also a familiar place for them. Gonzalez had done her fellowship training at BAMC and her sister would soon be working there as a specialty surgeon. It felt like home, she said, and Heriberto, as a veteran and one of the first physician assistants to be trained in the Air Force, and his wife were eligible to receive treatment at BAMC.

“It turned out to be one of the best things we did for them,” she said, though Laura’s condition deteriorated before she was able to receive ECMO treatment.

But as her mother faded, the hospital allowed Gonzalez the chance to be with her mom in her final hours – an opportunity she doesn’t take for granted, since many family members have not been permitted to be present as their loved ones died.

Using her voice

A former military physician and now community leader as chairwoman of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Gonzalez hopes she can help military medical facilities pioneer a solution that allows families like hers to be with their loved ones dying of the virus. “Because we all know that if we’re taking proper precautions that the risk is a lot lower, and I think in situations like that it will just prevent a lot of mental anguish that some of these families go through,” she said.

The pandemic also accelerated her plans for a nonprofit she founded in April. Months before her own parents fell ill, she established Con Corazón San Antonio, an organization that will work to address health inequity and emergency preparedness in underprivileged communities.

Due to the pandemic, the first initiative of Con Corazón is raising awareness about the importance of donating convalescent plasma to help others recover from illnesses such as COVID-19. While her mother was able to receive plasma therapy, Gonzalez believes it could have improved her chances if she’d had it sooner.

“We’re hoping to turn a very tragic moment in my personal life into hopefully seeing some good come out of it and maybe helping somebody else or another family down the road,” she said.

Gonzalez said she chose to serve as the Hispanic chamber’s chairwoman this year to use her voice to support the small business community, especially in health care.

“Never in my mind did I ever imagine that it would take on a whole different meaning with this pandemic,” she said.

But her platform is now more personal than ever. Despite her grief, she is speaking out now in the hopes she can influence how the community responds to the public health crisis.

“People might think that somebody in my position, whether it’s because I’m a doctor, or whether it’s because I’m the chair of the chamber … I can make it better by my knowledge or connections or whatever,” she said. But in this case, she was powerless to change the outcome for her own mother.

When Gonzalez saw her mother’s perplexing symptoms worsen, she said she felt as bewildered and fearful of the virus as the rest of the medical community.

“How does a virus do what I’m seeing?” she said she thought to herself. “It was a very sobering realization.”

Mental Health Experts’ Advice for Entrepreneurs Affected by COVID-19

Mental Health Experts’ Advice for Entrepreneurs Affected by COVID-19

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here

Mental health experts encourage small-business owners wrestling with coronavirus-related stress and anxiety to talk openly and honestly about their struggles to cultivate a flexible work environment that can adapt to the needs of the business and its employees.

In a webinar hosted by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (SAHCC) on Thursday, the local experts said a “silver lining” to the coronavirus pandemic is that it highlights the need for people to pay attention to their mental health when they are struggling with heightened or overwhelming emotions.

“What we know is that there is a lot of power in acknowledging the struggle,” said Clarissa Aguilar, behavioral health consultant with the Center for Health Care Services, Bexar County’s mental health authority. “Checking in with people if they seem like they need help or resources, and helping people remember the mission and vision, will help keep people connected to the passion that” made the entrepreneurial venture possible.

Joining Aguilar in the conversation focused on “normalizing” conversations about mental health and the workplace were Adriana Dyurich, a licensed counselor with UT Health San Antonio, and Dr. Ted Williams, founder of Genesis Psychiatric Center and UT Health San Antonio psychiatry professor. Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard moderated the panel conversation, sponsored by UT Health San Antonio, on the videoconferencing platform Zoom.

SAHCC Chairwoman and webinar organizer Dr. Erika Gonzalez said that SAHCC’s health and bioscience committee had planned to spend this year creating a health and wellness program for employees of small businesses that included a strong mental health component, but “when the pandemic occurred, there were more and different mental health issues that arose as small business owners struggled to keep their doors open and people employed,” so the focus shifted to employers.

“We were in an existing mental health crisis in our country before the pandemic hit,” Aguilar said, noting “the mental health effects for this pandemic will be longer lasting than the physical health ones.”

“The first thing I have done is tried to help my employees understand at least my perspective of the facts,” Williams said. “Fear-driven behavior won’t help us very much.”

Mental health support

Center for Health Care Services
Adults: (210) 261-1250; Children: (210) 261-3350

Texas Health and Human Services Commission
COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line, (833) 986-1919

Ecumenical Center of San Antonio
15-20 minute wellness visits by phone, (210) 616-0885

Guardian House
Free daily support group, noon Monday-Friday, (210) 733-3349

Cross Bridge Church
Pastor Shawn Sullivan, (210) 849-5905

Reflection International Ministries
Ramon Chapa, (210) 365-5250

CJC Life Church
Text (210) 724-3353 to begin the process

Mind Your Self Counseling
Support for ages 5 and up, (210) 564-9116

Stephen A. Cohen Clinic at Endeavors
Virtual appointments for veterans and immediate family, (833) 286-8387

Providence Place
Marriage and family therapy, (210) 643-7464

Williams, a small-business owner, said that because SAHCC members and business owners are “leaders of the community,” people will be looking to them to know what to do as the economy continues to reopen and the virus continues to be diagnosed throughout Bexar County.

Williams said COVID-19-related policy changes likely will take up the vast majority of staff meeting time because circumstances and guidance are continually evolving, but also essential are ongoing conversations about “all employee and employer needs.”

Dyurich said being more open to communication about emotions will help even when “talking about the practical issues [like] how to schedule shifts and the workflow.”

“I don’t think that anybody expects business leaders to know how to respond as mental health professionals, but to be able to validate what people are saying, to listen to the one another with openness and honesty, will help organizations to be flexible and adapt to people’s needs,” Dyurich said, adding that no solution fits everyone. “We are experiencing a lot of fear, trauma, and grief that doesn’t have to stay much longer than needed” if we address instead of internalize them.

Aguilar said that by thinking “about what you value,” personally and professionally, and “the things that drive those values,” business owners can create a plan of action.

“Small-business owners are having to think about the challenges and ethics involved, because economically there is a need, but from a social or population health perspective” they may wonder if they are doing the right thing for the community, Aguilar said. “If you can focus on one thing that is related to what you value the most, it can help you feel better about making decisions and also help with mental health.”

For small-business owners to stay grounded, Aguilar used the metaphor “dropping the anchor,” which involves “acknowledging thoughts and feelings and engaging in the present moment to guide decision-making.”

“We are all facing a big storm but we may not all be in the same boat, and dropping the anchor won’t make the storm go away but it will keep the boat in place,” Aguilar said.

Williams recommended “giving each other quite a bit of grace to have differing opinions.”

“When people are afraid, they can’t help in that moment that they are afraid, and we need to not be judgmental about their behavior so they won’t be judgmental about our behavior,” Williams said. “Remember that ultimately we want a good outcome not just for ourselves, but for each other, because that will win the day.”

But for those moments when people are too overwhelmed with their emotions to process them reasonably on their own or through conversations with trusted peers, the panelists said it’s important for people to know what resources are available to people who need help from trained professionals.

“There is a difference between being down and upset and being depressed,” Williams said, explaining that depression stays with a person; it’s not a feeling one simply moves on from.

In addition to talking openly about feelings both at and outside of work, panelists encouraged people experiencing overwhelming emotions to spend 30 minutes a day doing something active or meditative, including spending time outside or going for a walk, and “giving yourself grace and prioritizing what is important in a given moment.”

For those with children at home, it might be that math is not the thing needing to be prioritized at the moment. Remind yourself that teachers were trained to know how to teach their students, Dyurich said.

Noting that most entrepreneurs are high achievers, Aguilar said it can be important to “dial back down the expectations you set for what can be accomplished.”

“During this time people need to learn how to better embrace and respond to change,” Aguilar said. “We might not have the most optimal circumstance in our home or at work, but we can remember we are trying to do our best.”

Roseanna Garza

ROSEANNA GARZA

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report. 

Panel to Discuss Entrepreneur Anxieties Fueled by Coronavirus Pandemic

Panel to Discuss Entrepreneur Anxieties Fueled by Coronavirus Pandemic

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here

In an effort to address the unique challenges small business owners and entrepreneurs have faced during the coronavirus pandemic, the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (SAHCC) is hosting a mental health webinar on Thursday to discuss stress and anxiety in the business community. The goal is to help “normalize the conversation” and empower those in need to reach out for help.

“The mental health concerns experienced by [small business owners] and entrepreneurs is something that we have seen” increase over the years, with more people dying by suicide and experiencing crises, SAHCC Chairwoman Dr. Erika Gonzalez said. “When the pandemic occurred, there were more and different mental health issues that arose as small business owners struggled to keep their doors open and people employed.”

The COVID-19 Mental Health Webinar, moderated by Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard, will discuss mental health challenges for small business owners, including entrepreneurs with children juggling work and home life demands, stresses and risks involved in owning a small business, and information about available resources for those needing support.

Panelists include Clarissa Aguilar, behavioral health consultant with the Center for Health Care Services, Bexar County’s mental health authority, Adriana Dyurich, a licensed counselor with UT Health San Antonio, and Dr. Ted Williams, founder of Genesis Psychiatric Center and UT Health San Antonio psychiatry professor.

Dr. Lyssa Ochoa, chair of SAHCC’s healthcare and bioscience committee, said the panelists were selected because of their mental health expertise but also their entrepreneurial experiences that “help give insight and reflection into the stresses of small business ownership.”

“How small business leaders have been handling the stress of COVID-19 is something important to talk about because mental health has quite a stigma attached to it, and at the same time, we have the least resources in San Antonio [to address it],” Ochoa said. “If a person had a previous mental health concern, it might be even worse for them now, and we need people to keep checking in on how they are being impacted.”

Ochoa said SAHCC’s health and bioscience committee had planned to spend this year creating a health and wellness program for employees of small businesses that included a strong mental health component, but “this pandemic turned everything upside down” and the focus shifted to the employers.

The committee is now dedicating that time to discussing how the anxiety and uncertainty already attached to the entrepreneurial experience is exacerbated due to coronavirus, and that it is more important than ever to reach out for help.

“As small business owners, we are used to handling stressful situations, but we are trying to make sure we put out there that despite the ability to handle stress, it’s OK if a person needs help,” Ochoa said.

The webinar will air on Zoom from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, May 28, and is open to the public free of charge. To register in advance, click here.

Roseanna Garza

ROSEANNA GARZA

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report. 

High Pollen Counts Provoke Angst for Those With Allergies

High Pollen Counts Provoke Angst for Those With Allergies

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here

San Antonio saw whopping pollen counts over the past week, with oak dust skyrocketing to 30,900+ parts per billion on March 30 – some of the highest counts in a decade.

The severe pollen load has made those who suffer from allergies wonder if they are more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus than those who manage to escape the seasonal sniffling, sneezing and itchy eyes common to the Alamo City, which is considered an allergy hotspot.

“I’m probably super paranoid like most since all this COVID-19 viral pandemic, but I started feeling a sore throat coming on and I’m freaking myself out,” Nikki Rabon posted in the San Antonio Covid-19 Coronavirus Community Care Facebook group. “Anyone else? Probably just allergies….”

Rabon’s comment generated 143 comments, including this one from Anne Therese Cakins: “I suffer from allergies and asthma…I freak myself out on the daily! Trying to stay calm, though.”

“People are rightful to be anxious,” said Dr. Erika Gonzalez, CEO and president of South Texas Allergy & Asthma Medical Professional. Symptoms for allergies and coronavirus are similar, but the immune mechanism behind allergies is not the same one that would be involved with coronavirus.

Generally, those with seasonal allergies endure itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing and wheezing and possible shortness of breath. Coronavirus symptoms generally include dry cough, tiredness, and fever.

“If you get a fever, it’s not allergies, but some type of viral infection,” said Gonzalez. “Sneezing and itching – those are ‘good signs’ that it’s allergies and not viral.”

People with allergies generally have stronger immune systems than nonallergic folks, since their bodies are overreacting to perceived threats, said Dr. Robert Ramirez, immunologist with the Certified Allergy Asthma and Immunology Center.

“It takes a strong well-coordinated immune system to pick out allergens in our environment to mount immunity against,” said Ramirez.  “I often use the word ‘bias’ when describing how and why the immune system would attack these seemingly harmless targets.”

That said, when pollen levels get this high, even people who are not allergic to oak will begin to have allergy-like symptoms. “This reaction is more of an irritant or pollutant response rather than an allergic mechanism,” Gonzalez said.

Those receiving allergy treatment, however, are wondering if it’s wise to continue receiving allergy shots given coronavirus social distancing guidelines.

allergy serums
Allergy serums are ready for use in treating seasonal allergies. Credit: Courtesy / South Texas Allergy and Asthma Medical Professionals

Typically, allergy treatment involves getting injections of specially concocted serums that allow patients to gradually build their immunity to allergy-causing compounds. At the beginning of treatment, injections are generally administered multiple times a week. Over time, the dose is increased and frequency reduced. This can take several years, involving a shot once every month or less.

A routine allergy shot requires heading to a doctor’s office, signing in, waiting your turn, getting an injection, then sitting for 30 minutes in the waiting room to make sure no adverse reaction to the shot occurs.

Allergy doctors have had to adapt to a new reality in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Ramirez is administering allergy shots and injectable biologics in the office breezeway of his practice’s Lincoln Heights location.

“They drive up, they call us, we come outside and meet them in the covered breezeway, and they wait the 30 minutes in their car,” said registered nurse Jackie Sorenson, adding that the office only takes one patient at a time.

Gonzalez is offering “drive-thru allergy shots.”

Established patients call the doctor’s office from the parking lot. A medical assistant draws up the patient’s custom allergy serum, dons PPE, then goes out to the car to administer the shot.

“The patient then waits in the car for the appropriate amount of time, and upon completion of their waiting period, our medical assistant goes out to the car to check in on them and discharge them home,” said Gonzalez.

If patients prefer to come into the clinic, they can stay in the waiting room where chairs are spaced at least six feet apart. “We keep the number of patients at a minimum and don’t have more than one or two patients in the clinic at the same time,” said Gonzalez.

When consultations are necessary, doctors are adopting telemedicine.

“Telemedicine is something that a lot of doctors have considered incorporating at some point in their careers,” said Ramirez. “Now, with the loosening of restrictions by Governor Greg Abbott, it’s easier to implement,” he said, referring to the governor’s March 17 waiver of restrictions on telemedicine. Doctors and insurance companies can now charge and collect for phone visits just as they would for in-person visits.

With recent rains, sunny days, and longer, hotter seasons ahead, high pollen counts will continue through May, perhaps longer.

“Global warming has prolonged all our pollen seasons and made them worse in the sense that they linger for a longer time,” said Gonzalez.

In the meantime, doctors recommend those with allergies embrace the same best practices as the general public.

“Wash your hands. Stay home. Be nice to each other. We will get through this,” said Ramirez.

Monika Maeckle

MONIKA MAECKLE

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of… 

In San Antonio, Asthma Hits Kids in Low-Income Zip Codes Harder

In San Antonio, Asthma Hits Kids in Low-Income Zip Codes Harder

This story was originally published by San Antonio Report and can be found here

After she found out her children had been denied free state health insurance, Jessica Gutierrez started crunching the numbers.

With a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son in need of regular medication to treat the asthma they’ve both had since they were babies, Gutierrez was faced with a tough choice: buy health coverage through the federal exchange or go with her employer’s plan, even though it would eat up most of her recent raise. Plus, the rent on her Westside house near Woodlawn Lake just went up.

Editor’s Note

Disconnected is a series about economic segregation in San Antonio.

The series debuts a new story every Monday and looks at economic segregation through the lens of the major beats the Rivard Report covers. The goal was to create a human-centric look at one of the city’s biggest problems.

For more information on why we chose this project or to catch up on any missed stories, visit the Disconnected home page.

“That just means it’s going to put me back to where I’m not bringing home as much as I originally thought I would,” Gutierrez said. “I feel like I take five steps forward and then I have to take three steps back. … But their health is very important for me, and we have these medications every month, and I have to have insurance for them.”

Gutierrez and her kids are among the thousands of San Antonio families dealing with asthma, a complex disease that robs people of breath as their airways constrict and fill with mucus.

Health experts also have said asthmatics are at high risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19, the disease that has infected nearly 170,000 people around the world, including three San Antonio residents, and caused the death of nearly 7,000 people worldwide. San Antonio officials have not yet confirmed that the virus is spreading from person to person in the community, though many health experts believe that’s only because of a lack of available testing.

State health records show that San Antonio consistently has the highest asthma rates of any major city in Texas. However, a closer examination makes it clear that asthma does not affect all parts of the city equally.

Zip codes in low-income neighborhoods on the East, West, and Southwest sides had some of the highest rates of people going to the hospital for asthma in San Antonio, according to public health data shared by San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District.

“We see that areas that have higher poverty levels that are the ones that tend to have the most problems, and a lot of this has to do with access to care,” said Erika Gonzalez, an asthma and allergy doctor who also chairs the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

From 2015 to 2017, the zip codes with the highest rates of asthma hospital visits were the near Eastside zip codes of 78203 and 78208, where hospitalizations added up to 14 to 15 per 10,000 residents on average over those three years.

That’s around five times higher than the hospitalization rate 2 miles away in 78209, which covers the wealthy enclave of Alamo Heights and the adjacent Broadway neighborhood of Mahncke Park. There, the rate is just over 3 per 10,000 people.

Gutierrez, 33, has spent most of her life in a neighborhood within the 78228 zip code, one of three Westside zip codes where rates averaged around 11 per 10,000.

Asthma has a strong relationship to allergies, and its triggers vary widely. Pollen, air fresheners, smoke, cleaning products, mold spores, smog, pet dander, dust mites, cockroaches, and rodents all can bring on attacks, under certain circumstances.

Aside from the human costs of poor health and premature deaths, asthma also can drag down a region’s economy when it leads to days of missed work and school. Researchers with the American Thoracic Institute and New York University have estimated that San Antonio’s ozone pollution alone is responsible for nearly 107,000 instances in 2019 when a person had to miss work or school because of a lung condition

“There is a financial burden of asthma on the government and on residents,” said Haley Feazel-Orr, an epidemiologist at the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. “It takes up taxpayer dollars and insurance money, and [it affects] hospitals when someone can’t pay for their hospital bills because they had to go the emergency room because they were having an acute attack.”

Jessica Gutierrez walks with her children Zara and Josiah Walker down the waterfront at Woodlawn Lake Park. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

Finding Asthma Triggers

Health researchers have noted that asthma tends to run in families, though its genetic influences are complicated. Gutierrez and her brother both developed asthma as children. As an adult, she still experiences the coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath that characterizes the disease.

Doctors diagnosed both of her kids by the time they were a year old, Gutierrez said. She recalls when she used to lug around the machine used to administer albuterol, the bronchodilator medication that helped open their tiny airways when they suffered attacks.

It took a visit to an allergist around a year and a half ago to find out what triggered their attacks, she said. They each got an allergy test, conducted with a series of pinpricks to see if their skin reacted to certain allergic triggers. Gutierrez found out that she’s mostly allergic to mountain cedar. For her son, it’s mold spores. Her daughter suffers from grass allergies.

Once Gutierrez knew this, she could plan ahead for allergy seasons. Plus, she found a doctor who would answer her phone calls, offering advice that could keep the family out of urgent care clinics.

“We’ve been under control for about a year and a half already,” she said. “It’s been a while since we’ve had to go in [to urgent care].”

Lately, however, there’s been the question of insurance.

That became an issue only after her recent raise, when she took a new job as an administrative coordinator at the nonprofit SA2020. It boosted her income to a level at which her kids no longer qualified for the Texas Children’s Health Plan, she said. She thinks she’ll go with her employer’s insurance plan, even though the extra money she’ll pay in premiums will eat up all of the extra money she’s bringing in.

Overall, asthma is still a factor in Gutierrez’s life, but not a barrier. After earning her associate degree in business administration, she expects to get her bachelor’s degree in the same field in the next couple of years. She’s also spoken to a mortgage lender who says she can get on the right track to eventually borrow enough to buy her own house. All of this has been easier with their asthma under control, she said.

“Right now, we’re in a really good spot compared to where we were three years ago,” she said.

Oak Pollen and Air Fresheners

San Antonio is home to several programs focused on helping people like Gutierrez learn how to manage asthma on a daily basis.

For example, the City’s SA Kids BREATHE program sends community health workers, also known as promotoras, into residents’ homes, teaching people how to find their asthma triggers and use medication properly. From May through November, the program had more than 80 participants.

“We’ve had positive outcomes, for sure,” said Paul Kloppe, a respiratory therapist who oversees and mentors the team of health workers who visit participants’ homes three to five times over a six-month period.

However, there’s been much less local interest in tackling one of the broader issues associated with asthma: poor air quality.

Federal regulators consider San Antonio’s air quality to be officially unhealthy because of ozone, a pollutant tied to vehicle exhausts, industrial sites, and chemical use, among other sources. In Bexar County, nearly 60 percent of emissions of the nitrogen oxides that help form ozone come from mobile sources, such as vehicles and construction equipment, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

(From left) Danny and Lisa Olivares, with neighbor Marie Smith, look at the Monarch Silica sand mine from the Olivares’ property on the South Side. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Despite this, the TCEQ this year produced a study focusing on the relatively small amount of ozone wafting in from foreign countries as part of an argument to federal authorities to avoid more stringent air quality regulations in San Antonio.

At a February TCEQ hearing, Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) Executive Director Diane Rath, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce CEO Richard Perez, and Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) all praised the study. Each emphasized the negative effect that more stringent air quality rules could have on the local economy.

During the hearing, which lasted less than an hour, Terry Burns, a retired doctor who chairs the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, was the only speaker to mention public health.

“As a physician, I think that should be remembered that … the purpose of this activity we’re all engaged in [is] to protect people’s health,” Burns said. “I call upon San Antonio and the AACOG to actually get busy and take action to reduce our local ozone production.”

Some asthma triggers are beyond anyone’s ability to control. Some of the worst times for asthmatics are during the dreaded Ashe juniper season, December through February. Oak pollen and mold spores also spike at different times of the year.

Others factors are up to individual choices, such keeping a clean home, not smoking, and avoiding fragrant products. These factors are often the focus of Diane Rhodes, an asthma educator with North East Independent School District who in early March taught a free class for parents.

Diane Rhodes, asthma educator for North East Independent School District, sits behind her desk with visual aids she uses to teach children about that triggers asthma attacks.
Diane Rhodes, asthma educator for North East Independent School District, sits with the visual aids she uses to teach children what triggers attacks. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

“Asthma doesn’t happen overnight,” Rhodes explained to her lone attendee, a mother of five children. “It happens over a period of days.”

Rhodes explained how allergic and other triggers stack up until a person reaches a “symptom threshold” and suffers an asthma attack. An asthmatic might be OK during a smoggy day in the middle of oak pollen season until they enter a room with too many air fresheners. Identifying triggers is the way to get to a normal life with as little medication as possible, she said.

That’s how the fight against asthma in San Antonio continues – family by family and home by home.

“We have the time to meet families, to get to know families,” said Tracy Compean, a community health worker with SA Kids BREATHE.

‘Just Keep Moving Forward’

Recently, Compean and Kloppe have been visiting Monica Casillas at the mobile home park in south Bexar County where she lives with her husband, Miguel, and their 8-year-old son, also named Miguel.

A former elementary school teacher, Monica Casillas met her husband in 2007 at a family barbecue. They fell in love, and she ended up leaving teaching to raise their son. Now, young Miguel has severe health problems, including asthma and diabetes. An asthma attack landed her son in the hospital in November, she said.

“He turns red and can’t stop coughing,” she said.

For a long time, her husband made a living doing landscaping and construction work, despite having high blood pressure and diabetes, she said.

But starting last April, he suffered a series of four strokes and has not been able to work since. The family could end up waiting until next year to hear whether her husband qualifies for health insurance through Medicare, which is available for certain people under 65 with disabilities. For now, the family is uninsured, and their medical bills are stacking up, Casillas said.

Free programs are helping fill some of the gaps. Casillas found out about SA Kids BREATHE through a City social worker who also helped her son get enrolled in a homeschool curriculum through his district. Compean has been able to find them free food and clothing through local charities and government programs.

“San Antonio has a lot of resources,” Compean said during an interview last week at the Casillas home. “I have a lot of connections I can call upon.”

However, those resources can be intermittent, with funding and other support sometimes running out, Compean said. Coordinating her family’s care is also a full-time job for Casillas, who said she spends hours on the phone talking to health providers, social workers, and others who might help. That’s in addition to her efforts to make sure her son and husband get the daily monitoring and medication they need.

Still, Casillas said the asthma issues have been better since getting her son on the right medications. Sometimes, however, the challenges can seem overwhelming.

“Just keep moving forward, and have patience,” Casillas said. “That’s all you can do.”

Brendan Gibbons

BRENDAN GIBBONS

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report’s environment and energy reporter. 

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