As hospitals and health centers shut down to weather Hurricane Irma, the federal government has declared public health emergencies in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina—and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has issued a call for at least 1,000 volunteer nurses.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sunday afternoon as a Category 4 storm and headed into the mainland that afternoon. Irma eventually weakened to a tropical storm by Monday morning, although the National Weather Service cautioned that extreme storm conditions would continue for Florida's central and western regions. The storm is expected to hit Southern Georgia by Monday afternoon, the Journal reports.
Hospitals, health facilities close in anticipation of Irma
As of Saturday afternoon, 35 hospitals in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina had completely closed down or partially evacuated in anticipation of Irma, STAT News reports. However, the Florida Hospital Association (FHA) said that despite Irma's record-breaking strength, a majority of the association's more than 200 member hospitals in Florida were open as of Saturday afternoon. Overall, according to FHA, health care facilities as of Saturday afternoon had evacuated nearly 1,900 patients.
FHA President Bruce Rueben said of the situation, "There's a tremendous spirit of cooperation and collaboration among hospitals that extends to state and federal agencies." He added, "The hospitals I've talked to are confident they're doing everything they can. There's plenty of anxiety. But the ones staying open feel they can do a great job through the storm."
For instance, Tampa General Hospital—the region's sole Level 1 trauma center—is riding out the storm with 2,200 occupants, including 650 patients and 60 children of essential staff. The hospitalon Saturday deployed an emergency "Team A" of physicians, nurses, and staff to care for current patients and provide emergency care to storm victims. Team A is on a five-day shift, at which point a relief team will take over.
According to hospital staff, Tampa General has made several flood-safety improvements over the years to prepare for such a situation, including hurricane shutters on windows and "submarine-type" doors to keep generators functioning in case of flooding. "We have made every measure to keep patients safe," Ellen Fiss, the hospital's public relations manager, said.
Call for volunteer nurses
Scott on Saturday issued a public request for volunteer nurses, saying the state was in particular need of nurses at its "special needs" shelters. He said, "Anybody [who] can come and help us do that, we appreciate it," adding, "We need 1,000 nurses, and hopefully we'll get them." According to NPR's "The Two-Way," the state has also issued a call for volunteer health care providers who have a "specialized health care skill."
Nurses interested in volunteering have been asked to contact HelpFL@FLhealth.gov.
Federal health care agencies respond to hurricanes Harvey and Irma
In an effort to increase access to care, HHS also temporarily waived or modified parts of the Social Security Act.
For instance, HHS has waived requirements that "physicians or other health care professionals hold licenses in the state in which they provide services," as long as such individuals "have an equivalent license from another state" and are not "barred from practice in that state or any state a part of which is included in the emergency area." HHS also waived certain rules pertaining to directing, relocating, or transferring patients to other locations. HHS said those changes would help ensure CHIP, Medicaid, and Medicare beneficiaries affected by the storm could access health care services.
In addition, HHS' Office for Civil Rights granted a limited waiver of certain HIPAA penalties and sanctions for hospitals in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The limited waiver exempts hospitals in those areas from the HIPAA Privacy rule's:
- Requirement for hospitals to distribute a notice of their privacy practices;
- Requirement for hospitals to honor a patient's request to opt out of a facility's directory;
- Requirement for hospitals to obtain a patient's consent to speak with the patient's family members or friends regarding the patient's care.
The limited waiver also waives patients':
- Right to request confidential communications; and
- Right to request hospitals' privacy restrictions (Blau, STAT News, 9/9; O'Donnell, Tampa Bay Times, 9/10; Clark, Miami Herald, 9/9; Held, "The Two-Way," NPR, 9/10; Diamond, "Pulse," Politico, 9/11; AHA News, 9/8; HHS announcement, 9/7; HHS bulletin, 9/8; Wasson, Bloomberg, 9/8; Walsh et al., CNN, 9/8; Haefner, Becker's CFO Report, 9/8; Campo-Flores, Wall Street Journal, 9/11; Washington Post, 9/11).
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