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October 4, 2022

'Incredible strain': How Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc at Florida hospitals

Daily Briefing

    In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, health care facilities across Florida have been forced to evacuate patients and place staff on lockdown as water supply issues and power loss place an "incredible strain" on the state's health system.

    Florida health care facilities evacuate patients

    Before Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, many hospitals made advanced preparations to ensure the safety of their patients and keep their operations running smoothly.

    As of Thursday morning, 43 nursing homes had evacuated around 3,400 residents across southwest Florida, according to Kristen Knapp of the Florida Health Care Association (FHCA). By Thursday afternoon, 16 hospitals had already evacuated or were in the process of evacuating their patients, according to Mary Mayhew, CEO of the Florida Hospital Association (FHA).

    While some hospitals moved patients early last week when Hurricane Ian was projected to make landfall near the Tampa Bay area, it ultimately made landfall near Fort Myers—roughly 100 miles south of Tampa Bay.

    As floodwater continued to rise and utility outages worsened in the Fort Myers area, officials at health care facilities had to act quickly to transport patients to safer locations.

    When strong winds on Wednesday tore the roof from the ICU at HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital in Port Charlotte, staff members moved patients to higher floors before transferring the 160 remaining patients to neighboring hospitals after the damage further threatened their safety.

    Similarly, when HealthPark Medical Center in Fort Myers had four feet of water against their doors, officials relocated the ED to the hospital's third floor.

    Some hospitals began lockdowns. On Thursday morning, Flagler Health in St. Johns County initiated a "soft lockdown," closing its doors to visitors and pausing elective procedures.

    According to Erin Wallner, a public information officer at Flagler Health, roughly 350 staff members spent the night on cots. To prepare for the storm, the hospital placed sandbags outside to protect patients and staff from rising water.

    "We discharged prior to the storm anyone that reasonably could be discharged," Wallner said. "We had open heart cases that were just done prior to the storm, and they're here and recovering safely."

    Hurricane Ian places an 'incredible strain' on health care facilities

    Even health care facilities that did not suffer extensive physical damage are facing critical issues in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

    In Lee County, water utilities have been permanently damaged, cutting off access to potable water for least nine hospitals. The water supply and power loss have put "incredible strain on our health system," said Larry Antonucci, CEO of Lee Health, the largest provider in the county. "We cannot run a health system without running water."

    Meanwhile, the ED at Gulf Coast Medical Center said it had seen about 70 storm-related injuries—mostly from minor lacerations—but said it expected to see patients with more severe injuries in the coming hours and days.

    "We have one large health system in southwest Florida that is without water in all of their facilities. And so they are fast approaching a point where they will not be able to safely take care of their patients. So that is an urgent focus to get those patients transferred," Mayhew said.

    "There is considerable effort underway to rescue individuals who also will need medical care. And to identify hospital beds available either in the region or elsewhere," she added.

    As search and rescue efforts continue, Mayhew noted that new storm-related injuries could present additional challenges to health care facilities.

    "There were hundreds of search and rescue operations underway, so I would absolutely anticipate that our hospitals are starting to see individuals arriving from those search and rescue operations that need hospital care," she said.

    According to Mayhew, damage to the electrical grid could also "have a ripple effect across the health care system," since hospitals will not be able to safely discharge patients to their homes or nursing facilities if they still do not have power.

    Ultimately, even when patients are ready to be discharged, "they don't have any safe place to go," Antonucci added. (Baumgaertner, New York Times, 9/30; Calvan/Hartounian, Associated Press, 9/29; Bendix et al., NBC News, 9/29)

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