'Potentially catastrophic' Hurricane Michael nears landfall. Here's how hospitals are preparing.

President Trump and HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday declared a public health emergency in Florida ahead of Hurricane Michael, as hospitals began preparing for the storm, Medscape reports.

Advisory Board's take: 5 ways to prepare for the health impacts of a disaster

Details on the hurricane

Hurricane Michael is forecast to be a Category 4 storm with maximum winds of 145 miles per hour. The storm, which is expected to make landfall along the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday afternoon, is forecast to be one of the most destructive storms to strike the Florida Panhandle in decades, according to Medscape.

According to Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center about 6 to 10 inches of rain will fall during the storm. Nearly 3.7 million U.S. residents—including Alabama, Georgia, and Florida residents—were under a hurricane warning as of Tuesday. Another 2.4 million U.S. residents live in states where officials have issued a tropical storm warning.

HHS declares public health emergency, state officials order evacuations

President Trump and Azar on Tuesday declared a public health emergency in Florida. Among other things, the public health emergency declaration gives Medicaid and Medicare providers greater flexibility to meet the medical needs of Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) declared a state of emergency in 35 Florida counties. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal (R) declared a state of emergency in 92 Georgia counties. Local officials have issued mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders in at least 16 counties in Florida. In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) also declared a statewide emergency.

The Agency for Health Care Administration on Tuesday advised health care providers at facilities offering residential or inpatient care to "double check [their] evacuation plans and ensure that the location [they] plan to evacuate to is fully equipped to handle your residents" and to "consider alternative plans if [their] primary evacuation location is in an area likely to be affected by the storm."

How health systems are preparing for the hurricane

In line with those recommendation, health systems in the hurricane's path this week began evacuating patients, canceling surgeries, securing power generators, and storing food and water supplies ahead of the storm.

For instance, Mary Jo Gustave, marketing and communications specialist for Sacred Heart on the Emerald Coast, said the Walton County, Florida-based hospital on Tuesday began evacuating patients by ambulance or helicopter to Sacred Heart Hospital Pensacola. Gustave said it is routine for the hospital to conduct such evacuations when local officials order mandatory evacuations.

Sacred Heart on the Emerald Coast in a release also said as of Tuesday afternoon the hospital had stopped accepting new patients. However, the hospital's ED will remain open during the storm to treat patients with severe injuries and illnesses.

University of Florida Health (UF Health) on Tuesday announced the system's physician practices in Old Town and Tallahassee will be closed on Wednesday. However, UF Health said the system's hospital and outpatient services in Gainesville and Jacksonville areas will operate under normal conditions until further notice.

Flowers Hospital in Dothan, Alabama, announced it will reschedule outpatient and elective procedures scheduled for Wednesday. Hospital officials noted they have "undergone preparations" and will keep ED services available.

Denise Kendust, the marketing and public relations director at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, said the medical center will remain open during the storm, but its emergency clinic in Destin, Florida closed Tuesday at 7 p.m. Kendust said while the medical center will remain open, patients will only be able to enter the facility through its emergency entrance.

Other closures announced include:

  • All Florida Department of Health locations, including Pro Med Dental clinics in Milton and Midway—which closed at noon on Tuesday and will remain closed through Wednesday, but are scheduled to reopen at their regular times on Thursday;
  • Eglin Air Force Base hospital and ED, located in Okaloosa County Florida, closed Tuesday—and patients were being transferred to hospital in Fort Walton Beach;
  • Magnolia Medical Clinic in Fort Walton Beach closed Wednesday;
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System's outpatient clinics near Eglin Air Force Base and in Panama City Beach closed Tuesday and will remain closed on Wednesday; and
  • White-Wilson Medical Center clinic locations closed Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Anna Saunders, communications strategist at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare—a private nonprofit health care system serving 17 counties in North Florida and South Georgia, said the hospital will remain open for emergency services and urgent surgeries. However, it has canceled elective surgeries that were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. (Nelson, Medscape, 10/9; Thompson, Northwest Florida Daily News, 10/9; Villafranca, CBS News, 10/8; Samenow, "Capital Weather Gang," Washington Post, 10/10; Austin, FreightWaves, 10/9).

From hurricanes to shootings: How can hospitals prepare for disasters?

Hospitals must be prepared for myriad disasters that can stress health care systems to the breaking point and disrupt delivery of vital health care services.

Advisory Board has compiled step-by-step procedures for various threats your facility may encounter—though we hope you'll never need to use them.

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