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February 18, 2021

No power, no water, no heat: How Texas hospitals are coping with the extreme winter storm

Daily Briefing

    Amid statewide power outages, many hospitals throughout Texas have lost water and heat—forcing providers to conserve resources even as they see an influx of patients experiencing hypothermia and trying to escape the cold.

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    Severe winter storms knock out power across Texas, other states

    According to the Washington Post, severe storms have put more than 100 million people across the United States under some version of a winter weather advisory, with at least 10 states—including Texas—reporting widespread power outages.

    As of Wednesday morning, at least three million Texas residents were without power amid a large-scale failure of the state's power grid, and several cities in the state have reported water supply disruptions, as well. According to state officials, it could be several more days before power is restored.

    In response to these issues, people displaced from their homes by a lack of power and heat are seeking shelter at hospitals—even as hospitals grapple with influxes of patients from the country's coronavirus epidemic and a wave of other, weather-related conditions such as hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning. In Harris County alone, for instance, there have been more than 300 carbon monoxide poisoning cases as residents turn to "dangerous heat sources" amid the power outages and low temperatures, Forbes reports.

    It is a "very serious public health emergency," George Kovacik, a spokesperson for Memorial Hermann, said. "We have seen both adults and children in our [EDs] as people without power do anything they can to keep their families warm."

    How hospitals are responding

    According to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, hospitals in the region are facing three key challenges: accessing water for HVAC systems, sourcing oxygen, and getting supplies transported. In response, hospitals hard-hit by power outages and water-supply issues are trying to move their most vulnerable patients to other locations and taking steps to conserve resources, the Post reports.

    For example, St. David's South Austin Medical Center—which on Wednesday ran out of water and lost heat, forcing the hospital to ask staff to use trash bags to clean toilets—is trying to find transportation to move vulnerable patients to other facilities, bring water trucks to the facility, and secure portable toilets. In addition, the hospital—which has canceled "all non-emergent procedures," according to the Austin American-Statesman—is discharging some patients early.

    "I am personally directing every resource available within our health care system to find solutions to best care for and serve our patients during this challenging time," said David Huffstutler, CEO of St. David's.

    Two other hospitals, Ascension Seton Southwest Hospital and Dell Children's Medical Center, are similarly reporting lost water pressure. According to the Post, Ascension on Wednesday said it would reschedule all of its scheduled procedures to conserve staff and keep beds open.

    "While extreme weather conditions have caused intermittent water issues at several Ascension Seton sites of care, facility teams are working to quickly resolve the issues," Ascension Seton said in a statement. "All Ascension Seton hospitals have emergency response plans in place to provide uninterrupted patient care, including access to backup generators for each care site."

    Meanwhile, Dell Children's, which has also lost power, in a memo said it was "doing [its] best to keep everyone safe and warm," although the facility acknowledged that toilets at the hospital no longer have "flushing capabilities."

    In Arlington, Texas—which had just one water plant running before the storms hit—Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital and Medical City of Arlington have reported low water pressure following the region's water boil order, the Post reports. To help, a fire tanker has already transported water to at least one area hospital so providers can continue to care for patients.

    According to the Post, an additional five hospitals in the San Antonio region have faced weather-related challenges, from low water pressure to power outages that forced at least one facility to use a backup generator.

    And in Houston, according to the Post, several Houston Methodist hospitals have reported burst pipes, with at least two of the health system's facilities are running without any water. According to Roberta Schwartz, EVP at Houston Methodist, the hospital system remains operational, conserving its resources by using water bottles for patients, limiting showers, and asking staff to wash their hands with sanitizer rather than soap and water.

    "Quite honestly, I think we probably could have handled everything up until the water," Schwartz said. "The water has thrown a completely new loop onto everything."

    Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) is trying to conserve water for the area's hospitals by asking residents not to run water to prevent their pipes from freezing, "dipp[ing] into a water supply bookmarked for irrigating parks," and ordering grocery stores to give any available water they have to hospitals. In addition, the Houston Fire Department has sent water to the Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital.

    "We're all working together, just like we've done before," Turner said on Wednesday, "pulling resources from wherever they exist and then sharing those resources" (Bella/Shepard, The Washington Post, 2/18; Hoyt, The Dallas Morning News, 2/16; Plohetski, Austin American-Statesman, 2/17; Guzman-Tracy, News 4 San Antonio, 2/17; Childers/Edsitty, ABC 13, 2/18; McEvoy, Forbes, 2/16; Hernández et al., Washington Post, 2/17).

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