Irma forces 35 hospitals across 3 states to evacuate: 9 things to know

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Hurricane Irma hit southwest Florida Sunday and continued its destructive march north, forcing at least 35 hospitals across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina to evacuate patients or shut down. Downgraded to a tropical storm Monday morning, Irma still presents a major threat to many healthcare facilities.

Here are nine things to know.

1. As of Saturday afternoon, most of Florida’s hospitals remained open, the Florida Hospital Association told STAT. In advance of the hurricane, healthcare facilities across the state evacuated nearly 1,900 patients.

2. Four hospitals in the Florida Keys — Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West, Fishermen’s Hospital in Marathon, Mariners Hospital in Tavernier and Depoo Hospital in Key West — were among the first healthcare facilities in the state to close last week ahead of the hurricane, according to STAT.

3. In Miami, Mercy Hospital, part of Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare, closed Friday after evacuating 200 patients. The patients were transferred to other HCA facilities. The Miami Cancer Institute, part of Coral Gables-based Baptist Health South Florida, also closed.

4. Mt. Sinai Hospital in Miami opened two conference rooms to house 30 expectant couples who were unable to leave during the hurricane. The women are 36 or more weeks pregnant and unable to travel, according to WHDH.

5. Naples, Fla.-based NCH Healthcare System stayed open during the hurricane and provided shelter for hundreds of evacuees, according to the Naples Daily News.

6. On Florida’s west coast, at least five hospitals have closed. Tampa General Hospital, the region’s only Level 1 trauma center, stayed open. As of Sunday, about 650 patients were in the hospital. A group of physicians, nurses and other staff will care for patients throughout the remainder of the storm, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

7. In central Florida, Cape Canaveral Hospital closed after evacuating patients last week, according to STAT.

8. In Georgia, Candler Hospital in Savannah transferred patients to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah. Officials said St. Joseph’s Hospital “is better equipped to handle the long-term needs of our caregivers, medical staff and any patients who are too sick to be discharged or evacuated.”

9. In South Carolina, Hilton Head Hospital evacuated all patients and suspended services.

Houston hospitals may not be back to normal for a month

Amid the evacuation of approximately 1,500 patients from Houston-area hospitals, officials are commending the emergency response by health providers — while also cautioning that it may be weeks before the facilities are back to business as usual.

The SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council — which has overseen catastrophic medical operations since Hurricane Harvey as part of Houston’s emergency command center — estimates that nearly two dozen hospitals have evacuated patients by ambulance and airplane over the course of the past week.

“The storm was so huge it was uncertain what hospitals might be in harm’s way,” said Darrell Pile, chief executive officer of SETRAC. Had they known Harvey would grow into a Category 4 storm, Pile said, they would have staged evacuations three days in advance. But Harvey was unpredictable from the start — and grew stronger without much warning.

Evacuations have been slow not only because of the perils involved in moving patients but also because it has taken time to find other hospitals to accept them. “Some patients may have had gone to Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, or even Waco,” Pile said. “You’ve got to find the hospital to handle the unique needs of the patients you want to transfer.”

Evacuation numbers continued to climb on Tuesday. But Pile said numerous hospitals also scaled back or suspended plans for evacuations. One such facility was Ben Taub, one of Houston’s major safety-net hospitals, which only evacuated three patients after originally seeking to move all 350 patients after flooding occurred inside the hospital basement.

“In the case of Ben Taub, as the waters went down, and additional staff were able to arrive, they whittled down their list,” Pile said, speaking Wednesday. “They may even open back up to full service later today.”

Bryan McLeod, director of external and online communications at Harris Health System, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that Ben Taub, the system’s largest hospital, is now seeking to “offload some of the patients that we currently have” in anticipation of a “surge of patients” expected as roads clear.

“I can only imagine the burden is going to increase,” said Vivian Ho, a health care economist with Rice University. “It’s going to get tough on them.”

Coordinated response

Pile praised the coordination of hospitals, first responders, and civic leaders. In other major storms elsewhere, he said, some hospitals have failed to communicate effectively; ambulances would bring patients to their doors even though the facilities might be unable to meet their needs.

By contrast, Pile said, roughly 25 hospitals affected by Harvey declared an “internal disaster” — a status that reflects a hospital facing problems in carrying out normal daily operations — that allowed SETRAC to pass along timely information along to first responders who could, in turn, divert patients toward care at hospitals capable of treating them.

“The majority of our hospitals stayed open,” Pile said. “The teamwork of hospitals and EMS agencies through our coalition kept it from becoming an even a bigger disaster.”

Pile hasn’t heard of any hospitals in the Houston area devastated to the point of shuttering — something that’s also occurred in other storm-ravaged cities. It’s because of that he believes nearly all Houston-area hospitals will be fully up and running by the end of September.

“This storm was paralyzing,” Pile said. “Within a month, [I expect] 90 to 95 percent of hospitals will be back in full service. That’s a first.”