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Hospitals Across The Gulf South Brace For Hurricane Ida Amid COVID Surge

Ochsner Baptist Medical Center. March 25, 2020.
Patrick Madden
Ochsner Baptist Medical Center. March 25, 2020.

Many hospitals in Louisiana and across the Gulf South, strained by treating thousands of COVID-19 patients, are discharging as many patients as possible, diverting those in critical care to safer areas, and reducing staff ahead of Hurricane Ida’s landfall Sunday night.

Louisiana and Mississippi — the two states directly in the storm’s current path — remain at the epicenter of surging COVID-19 cases in the country, adding a layer of risk to evacuations and forcing hospitals to brace for the storm while handling record numbers of patients.

There were 2,450 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Louisiana on Saturday, a drop of 20 percent over the last ten days, said Gov. John Bel Edwards in a press briefing Saturday — but still more people hospitalized for COVID-19 than at any prior point of the pandemic. The number is down from a record high of over 3,000 earlier in August.

Edwards says that decrease in hospitalizations is “helpful going into this hurricane, especially since we know that the evacuation of our hospitals is not an option.

But he said the hospitals are still over capacity. And “that still puts us in a very precarious position,” Edwards said.

The overcrowding of state hospitals has made such hospital evacuations impossible, Edwards said at a briefing on Friday. The problem is not only the volume of patients being treated — it’s that many are in intensive care units. At Ochsner Health, the largest health system in Louisiana, at least a quarter of all COVID patients were in intensive care beds last week.

Dr. Joseph Kanter, the Louisiana state health officer, said all major hospitals have generators and are prepared to weather the storm.

“As always, we’ll be ready to assist during and after if needed,” Kanter said.

Clinics and urgent cares across Louisiana are closing, while hospitals strip down to essential staff and only the most needy patients. Emergency rooms will remain open, but local leaders have urged people to stay away unless they are in a true emergency.

“The challenge this year with COVID, and the patients in the hospitals, is that we will have a typically higher census than we would like to have during a hurricane event,” said Dr. Jeffery Elder, the medical director for emergency management for LCMC Health.

“Unfortunately we do have a lot of COVID patients in house,” Elder, also an emergency physician, said. He added that because of those patients who need critical care, the system may not be able to discharge as much as they would like.

But he said the hospitals are far better prepared than they were in 2005 for Hurricane Katrina.

“We've been through some pretty bad hurricanes in the past. We've, over the past 15-plus years, beefed up our planning, our housing, our ability, hardened up facilities,” Elder said.

Hospitals routinely try to discharge as many staff and patients as possible ahead of hurricanes.

At LCMC, hospitals are being stocked with food, medications and other supplies. A core group of staff are then locked in through the storm to treat the patients that have remained.

Hospital back-up generators are prepped for what could be days of power outages. Visitors are heavily restricted during the lockdown.

In Mississippi, health officials are diverting critical care patients to hospitals in the northern part of the state where they will be safer.

“When a storm comes, we try to make sure that critical patients are moved. We're making those actions now,” said Jim Craig, the Mississippi State Department of Health director of health protection. “Remember, our hospitals and EMS agencies are already working at maximum capacity due to COVID-19. We're very grateful to the state and the federal staff that we have here to help us staff additional beds and resources in Mississippi.”

Some hospitals like St. Dominics in Mississippi are preparing for discharge if necessary. Mississippi may not see much of the effects of the storm until late evening Sunday.

“In addition to evaluating every hospital patient for possible discharge, we are coordinating with home health partners to support discharged patients with electric medical devices who may be impacted by power outages,” said Meredith Bailess, a spokeswoman with St. Dominic's hospital in Jackson, MS.

At Ochsner Baton Rouge, visitors have been limited to one per patient in the emergency department and labor and delivery ward, and patients with mental illness can also only have one visitor. Only immediate family can visit those receiving end-of-life care.

Baton Rouge General has canceled surgeries planned for Monday.

“We are factoring in the complexity of our high COVID-19 census and ensuring we’re able to maintain care for all of our patients who need us,” said Stephanie Manson, chief operating officer of Our Lady of the Lake hospital, part of the Franciscan Ministries of Our Lady Health System. “We have the supplies, backup generators, and staffing plans necessary to accomplish this goal.”

Its hospitals will activate storm teams on Sunday.

Communications director Ryan Cross said that while one shift works, another shift of staff will sleep, rest and recharge to keep medical services running.

In New Orleans, health department director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said the city is in contact with nursing homes and shelters “to make sure they've got everything they need.”

“We have a lot of experience from last year of handling both the threat of a natural disaster and the continued pandemic at the same time,” Avegno said.

Nearly 80 percent of adults in New Orleans have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, she added, saying that the high rate of vaccination could reduce the potential for COVID-19 spread.

Federal health care teams are already in place in Louisiana and Mississippi responding to the COVID-19 surge, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves told reporters Saturday that those teams will help care for patients and provide additional beds in hospitals throughout the state for patients transferred from areas in the storm’s path.

On Friday, Mississippi began decreasing the number of transfers to hospitals in southern Mississippi, sending them to northern hospitals instead. Craig said additional federal strike teams may be able to help transfer patients.

He added that the state is better prepared than for Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago.

“But we're also dealing this time with a major pandemic,” Craig said. “Please be sure to wear your mask when indoors, continue to follow isolation and quarantine guidelines.”

Central and South Mississippi county health departments have cancelled all COVID-19 vaccinations and testing Monday and Tuesday. Governor Reeves acknowledged that the confluence of both surge in Covid-19 cases and the hurricane has created a dire situation.

“Hurricanes present real challenges, even if COVID did not exist and we weren't dealing with this pandemic and the significant increase in patients that it has caused,” Reeves said.

“And so there is no doubt that … this particular storm is going to create some real challenges for us to deal with.”

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.
Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.

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