A hurricane in the middle of a pandemic: Medical facilities say they’re ready

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With years of experience dodging major hurricanes and months of practice fending off the novel coronavirus, medical officials in the path of Hurricane Laura said Wednesday they are prepared for the Category 4 storm despite the trying circumstances of a pandemic.

Evacuations were more cumbersome with the added requirements of social distancing and masks because of the coronavirus. But critically ill patients have been transferred from hospitals and frail patients are out of nursing homes in Jefferson County, Tex., where Laura is expected to make landfall with winds that could reach 150 miles per hour.

“There comes a moment when you’ve prepared the best you can. It’s beyond your control, and you adapt to it as it comes,” said Ryan Miller, chief operating officer for Christus Southeast Texas Health System, which operates a string of hospitals and other facilities in the Beaumont area. “We will be tested tonight. It’s going to be a very intense six or eight hours.”

At the medical center’s two main inpatient hospitals, elective surgeries have been canceled, backup power is in place and staff members for the next few shifts are being housed on site so they won’t have to travel, Miller said. Masks are universal and accommodations allow for social distancing, he said. About 30 patients with covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, are being kept separate from others in the hospital.

At the Medical Center of Southeast Texas in Port Arthur, another of the three major hospitals in the area, officials have transferred about 65 percent of patients to hospitals further inland, according to Chief Medical Officer Gary Mennie. That includes patients from intensive care units, some of whom were unconscious and on ventilators because they were receiving treatment for covid-19, he said.

One by one, they were moved in ambulances equipped with ventilators to other Texas hospitals, Mennie said. All patients receiving kidney dialysis were transferred in case the water supply — needed to provide the treatment — is disrupted, he said. Covid-19 patients who are not critically ill also were moved, he said, and staff — all of whom volunteered to stay — will spend the night at the hospital.

“We’ve gone through several hurricanes,” Mennie said. “We’ve gone through Rita. We’ve gone through Ike. We’ve gone through Harvey. We’ve gone through Imelda,” he said, ticking off the major storms that have battered the region during the past 15 years.

The county’s nursing homes also have been emptied, said Allison Getz, a spokeswoman for Jefferson County. Most were transferred by the facilities themselves, but a few were transported by the county, which helped about 1,000 people leave for Austin and San Antonio, she said.

That effort required more buses than usual, Getz said, because coronavirus protocols limited passengers to 15 or 20 per vehicle, rather than 50. All were required to wear masks.

In all, Getz said, about half of the county’s population of 250,000 remains. “Which is too many,” she said.

The number of people with covid-19 has declined since a peak several weeks ago, authorities said. With people prepared and hunkered down to ride out the storm, there should be no spread of the virus during the hurricane, Getz said, as there was following the mass panic that followed an explosion in Beirut this month.

The aftermath of the storm poses another challenge.

“After storms, the hospitals become sort of like meccas that people come to,” Mennie said. Hospital officials will triage anyone with covid-19 symptoms into a separate waiting room equipped with negative pressure to contain the virus, he said.

“To have a hurricane on top of [the pandemic], it does keep us nimble,” Miller said.
“It’s not what we asked for.”

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