Hurricane Ian has forced several Florida hospitals to evacuate patients and place staff in lockdown as facilities face critical power outages and disruptions to water supplies.
Mary Mayhew, CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, said 16 hospitals across the state had evacuated or were evacuating as of Thursday afternoon.
Some moved patients earlier this week as the hurricane was expected to make landfall in the Tampa Bay area, she said. Hurricane Ian finally made landfall near Fort Myers, about 100 miles south of Tampa Bay, on Wednesday.
Emergency responders are concerned about operations in Lee County, where at least nine hospitals are without water, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Deanne Criswell said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday.
Lee Health, one of the county’s largest health systems, evacuated more than 1,000 patients due to the disruption in the water supply, Mayhew said.
“A hospital cannot safely care for its patients without water, and they are working closely with local and state authorities to evacuate their patients as it is unclear how long this water can be restored,” Mayhew said.
Physical damage to limited hospitals
Few hospitals sustained major physical damage, but hurricane winds tore off part of the roof of an intensive care unit at HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital in Port Charlotte on Wednesday. Staff moved critically ill patients to other floors and mopped up the water with towels and plastic bins.
Fawcett said in a statement that he evacuated his sickest patients before the storm made landfall. It was transferring 160 more patients to other hospitals after roof damage caused leaks, he said.
Kindred, a hospital system providing acute long-term care, also evacuated patients from Tampa and St. Petersburg on Wednesday. A total of 44 patients were moved via ambulance to a central Tampa facility, said Susan Feeney, vice president of communications for the Kindred division. The hospital is awaiting news from the state about when those patients can be brought back, she said.
“These are very, very sick patients,” Feeney said. “Many of them have multiple chronic conditions, and a very large percentage of our patients are ventilator dependent.”
An Advent Health hospital in Tarpon Springs also transported patients to its sister facilities in Tampa Bay on Tuesday evening. Patients are expected to return to the Tarpon Springs location on Friday, the hospital said in a statement.
Meanwhile, other hospitals are initiating emergency procedures. Flagler Health in St. Johns County implemented a “soft lockdown” Thursday morning, which means it is closed to visitors and will not perform elective procedures.
Erin Wallner, public information manager at Flagler Health, said about 350 staff will be sleeping in cots overnight. The hospital is equipped with a 2-tonne generator in case of power failure and has placed sandbags outside to protect against possible flooding, she said. All doors were locked except for the emergency entrance.
Wallner said a baby was born during the lockdown.
“We fired before the storm anyone who could reasonably be fired,” she said. “We had open heart cases that were just treated before the storm, and they are here recovering safely.”
But further injuries from the hurricane could pose an additional challenge, Mayhew said.
“There were hundreds of search and rescue operations going on, so I absolutely expect our hospitals to start seeing people arriving from these search and rescue operations who need hospital care,” she said.
Mayhew said damage to the power grid could also “have a ripple effect on the healthcare system” as hospitals cannot safely discharge patients to a home or nursing facility that has no no electricity.
A Growing Threat to Florida Hospitals
Hurricane Ian may be a preview of what Florida hospitals can expect to see in the decades to come.
A study released Thursday by researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health assessed flood damage to Florida hospitals through the end of the century, assuming a sea level rise of less than 3 feet.
Researchers have determined that a Category 2 hurricane – a storm with winds between 96 and 110 mph that can uproot trees or damage roofs – could threaten access to care at more than 60 hospitals across six Florida metro areas. (Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Sarasota, Jacksonville and Fort Myers).
In total, at least 21,000 hospital beds were at risk, according to the report.
Dr. Aaron Bernstein, lead author of the study and acting director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE, said that while Florida hospitals have been well prepared for hurricanes in the past, future storms are likely to be more dangerous.
“Fort Myers and the Tampa Bay area have invested heavily in hurricanes. They know about hurricanes. People in Florida grew up with them. The problem is that climate change is creating different hurricanes than people have experienced,” Bernstein said.
One of the biggest challenges for hospital care during a storm is road access, he said.
Bernstein’s study predicted that all roads within a mile of hospitals in Punta Gorda, Florida were at risk of flooding from a Category 2 storm through the end of the century. In Naples, about 99% of these roads would likely be flooded. And in the Miami metro, it was 72%.
Bernstein said cities tend to build hospitals “like Fort Knox” to prepare for a hurricane by stockpiling supplies and erecting seawalls and underwater gates. But those guarantees aren’t as useful if the roads are closed, he said: “You can build Fort Knox, but if you can’t get there, what’s the point?”
Restricting access to hospitals could have lasting health effects, he added, beyond storm-related deaths.
“When you cut off access to health care, any chronic medical condition can get worse because people aren’t getting care,” he said. “Even without access to care being totally compromised, we see people who have the least means really suffer because they’re trying to pay for home repairs or extra expenses and they’re sacrificing their health.
A 2019 study found that lung cancer patients who were exposed to a hurricane while receiving radiation had lower survival rates than patients who were not exposed. The risk of death also increased as the disaster spread.
Mayhew said the aftermath of Hurricane Ian could put vulnerable people in an even more vulnerable position.
“It will take weeks before the damage is fully understood, and restoring infrastructure can take months,” she said. operations are operational. »