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Ebola SmartPods bring future of mobile medicine to Harris County

The future of mobile medicine arrived in Harris County Tuesday, focused initially on community-based COVID-19 testing but available for any emergency response or disease care.

The so-called SmartPods, portable aluminum units developed by Baylor College of Medicine for the Ebola outbreak in Africa and envisioned by NASA for the Mars habitat, will be deployed in the United States for the first time in east Harris County’s Precinct 2. The initiative is the brainchild of Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who sees the units as a way to increase health care access and keep people out of hospitals.

“This is the 21st century MASH unit being made available here,” said Garcia, whose precinct is one of the region’s most medically underserved areas. “Tents were the first phase. This is the second phase.”

Each SmartPod is a modular three-bed medical unit — self-contained, fully powered, impervious to outside weather conditions — inside recycled shipping containers that inventor Sharmila Anandasabapathy says is “almost like Ikea.” Anandasabathy, an internal medicine doctor and the director of Baylor Global Initiatives, touts how the units are put together like Legos and can be folded up in minutes.

The pods cost less than 5 percent of the cost of a brick-and-mortar medical unit, said Anandasabapathy. Garcia is spending a total of $2.9 million on the units, which includes design, construction, transport, medical equipment and medical services.

The first of the SmartPods opened Tuesday at Northeast Community Center in Aldine. Others will be stationed at East Harris Activity Center in Pasadena and Flukinger Community Center in Channelview.

It is unclear if other Harris County precincts will purchase the units.

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