As Florida prepares for Hurricane Irma—a Category 5 storm that has sustained winds of up to 185 miles per hour—hospitals are beginning to evacuate patients and some are preparing to close down.
According to STAT News, the storm is expected to make landfall in Florida by early Sunday, with high winds and potential flooding beginning as early as Saturday.
A powerful, dangerous storm
On Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) declared a state of emergency for the entire state of Florida. The following day, state officials announced a series of mandatory evacuations, ordering tourists to leave the Florida Keys by early Wednesday morning and all residents to leave by 7 p.m. Now, hospitals in the path of Irma are preparing for impact, with some evacuating patients and closing down.
"This is a life-threatening killer storm," Martin Senterfitt, director of the Monroe County Emergency Operations Center, said. "With a Category 5 coming at the Florida Keys we could be looking at wave heights that would literally put the ocean over the islands."
Wayne Brackin, the COO and EVP of Baptist Health South Florida, echoed his sentiments, but added that the storm's severity—and the recent storm in Texas—has spurred people to heed evacuation notices. "People in the Keys, by and large, are rugged individualists and, historically, it's been difficult to motivate people to evacuate," he said, adding, "The fact this storm is such a monster, and given what they witnessed during Harvey, people are getting out."
Separately, Warner Thomas—president and CEO of New Orleans-based Ochsner Health System, who served as COO of the health system when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana—advised hospitals in Irma's path to make sure they "have adequate power sources, backup power generation, ... appropriate water sources," and sufficient staff to have two teams on call. He added that while storms such as Katrina, Harvey, and Irma create "challenges and ... anguish," there is a silver lining in that "it brings people closer" and makes teams "more resilient."
'Patient safety, as always, is our top priority'
According to Politico Pro's "Pulse," as of this morning, more than 60 health care facilities in the state have evacuated patients in anticipation of Irma's landfall, as have another 55 health care providers, including 19 nursing homes. For example:
- The Lower Keys Medical Center in Monroe—the county that includes the Keys—evacuated patients on Wednesday via aircraft from the North Carolina National Guard, sending their patients to Gadsden Regional Medical Center in Alabama, and will close on Friday;
- Baptist Health's two hospitals in Monroe—Fishermen's Hospital and Mariners Hospital— closed on Thursday after they discharged patients who were well enough to go home; evacuated patients too ill for discharge to the health system's hospital in Miami, which Brackin said is equipped to survive on its own for at least two weeks; and
- Mercy Hospital in Miami has shut down its ED to new patients and on Thursday began evacuating more than 200 patients from the hospital to facilities at HCA East Florida.
Other hospitals that have evacuated patients include HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Miami, Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel, Florida Hospital Oceanside, Sister Emmanuel Hospital, Depoo Hospital, RiverPoint Behavioral Health, Fort Lauderdale Hospital, and Atlantic Shores Hospital. The Keys' health department also announced it will close for the storm.
Explaining Lower Keys Medical Center's decision to evacuate patients, hospital spokesperson Lynn Corbett-Winn said, "We are preparing our patients and their families and providing information to them," adding, "Patient safety, as always, is our top priority."
Brackin, Baptist Health South Florida COO and EVP, echoed her sentiments, stating, "The magnitude of the storm and the vulnerability of the Keys make (the closures) an extraordinary decision for us."
Meanwhile, as of Thursday, several hospitals and health care facilities in other areas of the state had implemented measures to prepare for the storm but were holding off on evacuating. For instance:
- Boca Raton Regional Hospital said it would not evacuate preemptively, but had an evacuation strategy in place if needed;
- Edward J. Healey Center in Riviera Beach and Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade put their disaster preparedness plan in place, although the facilities did not provide details;
- Florida Hospital in Orlando informed patients it would remain fully staffed and operational during the storm, citing its stockpile of several thousand gallons of water and backup generators;
- Orlando Health has stockpiled emergency supplies, but it cautioned patients that it might go on lockdown depending on the storm's severity; and
- Physicians Regional Healthcare System in Naples is keeping its elective surgeries on schedule, but it is stockpiling food and water, among other supplies.
According to CNN, several facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties—while announcing that they would remain open—are also preparing for impact by putting up shutters, stockpiling food and water, ensuring generators are fully fueled, and clearing nearby areas of debris that could be thrown in the hurricane's winds.
Patients, providers gear up for the storm
As hospitals and health facilities prepare for the storm, some patients in the area are heading to hospitals in anticipation of needing to be there when the hurricane hits, such as women about to give birth or patients who are unable to breathe on their own. "Those patients have a tremendous amount of anxiety, and they want to be in a hospital facility during a storm," Brackin said, adding that Baptist Health is doing what it can to accommodate such requests.
Brackin mentioned that some hospitals may see an increase in visits for injuries related to preparing for the hurricane. There are an "astonishing number of injuries related to shutters being put up," Brackin said. "People fall off ladders; they cut themselves; they break bones."
Hospitals and insurers are also urging patients with prescription medications to stock up in anticipation of landfall. Baptist Corporate Marketing Director Candy McGuyre said, "If you have prescription medication, don't wait until you're too low," adding, "Go ahead and get those filled."
Meanwhile, Florida Blue, part of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, said policyholders in the state are eligible for early refills on their medications until Sept. 19 (Vartorella, Becker's Hospital Review, 9/6; Blau, STAT News, 9/6; Nedelman, CNN, 9/7; CBS Miami, 9/6; Bean, Becker's Hospital Review, 9/7; Diamond, "Pulse," Politico Pro, 9/8; Gooch, Becker's Hospital Review, 9/7).
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