Four days before Hurricane Laura slammed into the Gulf Coast last month, officials at the Medical Center of Southeast Texas in Port Arthur made an important call: They would evacuate their COVID-19 patients and other individuals who required a higher level of care and/or life-sustaining measures. Officials made the decision to evacuate such patients from both their Port Arthur and Beaumont campuses.
“We made a very proactive decision (to transfer patients days before Laura made landfall),” says Dr. Gary Mennie, the hospital’s chief medical officer. “I’m proud as a member of the administrative team that we made the choice we would do this early on, for the safety of the patients, which comes first.”
The transfers began at about noon on Aug. 24, a Monday. One by one, staff placed COVID-19 patients who were on ventilators and other critically ill individuals on life-sustaining equipment into ambulances. Health care workers and ambulance staffers donned full protective gear, including goggles, gowns, masks and disposable gloves, to evacuate the COVID-19 patients. They also evacuated patients on dialysis into the ambulances. Dialysis patients were moved because that procedure requires water, and the medical center’s water supply could be disrupted if it took a direct hit from Laura.
By about 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, the medical center had transferred or discharged 65% of its census to its sister facility, St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston, about a 90-minute car ride away. St. Joseph had the capacity to take the additional patients.
“We got everybody out in a safe and orderly fashion,” Mennie says. One patient became critical while being transported. The patient died after being admitted to another facility.
Family members of patients who are chosen for evacuation can opt to have their loved one stay at the hospital. If a relative were to make such a request, the risks of keeping a patient reliant on life-supporting equipment would be explained to them, says Angie Hebert, a hospital spokeswoman. Those risks involve the possibility of power outages. No family members vetoed moving their loved one to another hospital, she says. As of this writing, most of the evacuated patients have since returned to the hospital.
Hospital officials decided to evacuate COVID-19 patients and others because of the potential the hurricane had to severely damage the 224-bed facility. If the hurricane had made a direct hit on Port Arthur, the town’s roads could have been inundated with water, which could have made them impassable for weeks. If patients required a higher level of care, hospital officials would not have been able to transfer them.
As it turned out, Hurricane Laura landed a relatively glancing blow on Port Arthur. Starting around 1 a.m. on Aug. 27, a Thursday, Laura produced strong winds and rain but didn’t cause widespread serious damage or power outages. The storm had moved on from Port Arthur by about 6 a.m. that day.
But days before the hurricane made landfall, Mennie and other hospital officials had no way of knowing that Laura would only inflict minor damage on Port Arthur. “If the hurricane had hit 20 miles to the west, we would have looked like Lake Charles,” Mennie says, referring to the Louisiana town that was pummeled by Laura.
Preparation paid off for Mennie and his colleagues. Because of the hospital’s location, medical center officials and workers prepare for hurricanes and severe storms on an ongoing basis.
In February, Mennie and other members of the hospital’s disaster preparedness team began meeting to plan for the hurricane season. Hospital officials discussed evacuation scenarios, including their protocols for switching from electrical power to generators.
“You always plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Mennie says.
About a week before the hurricane struck U.S. land, members of the disaster preparedness team started monitoring forecasts from the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about the weather pattern that would become Laura.
“We started following it when it was a tropical depression off the African coast,” Mennie says. Disaster preparedness team members would look at updated information on a daily basis. Mennie says he and other hospital veterans have plenty of experience tracking incoming hurricanes. He ticked off the names of several he’d prepared for: Rita, Harvey, Imelda, Humberto and Gustavo.
Hospital officials checked off the tasks on their disaster plan; they made sure the hospital had enough food, linens and other supplies to last for several days, in case area roads became impassable. The day the hurricane was scheduled to arrive, the hospital switched to generators, to make sure there was no interruption in power.
Mennie was one of 150 clinicians and support staff members who volunteered to remain at the hospital during the hurricane, to care for non-critical patients who were not evacuated, including individuals who were stable but not yet able to be discharged from the hospital. He and several colleagues who stayed sent their families out of the area. “Our families worry about us because we stay,” he says. “We worry about our families getting to safety.” The hospital also provided accommodations for 10 members of the Port Arthur police SWAT unit, in case they were needed in the community.
The hospital also discharged some patients early, provided that it was a medically sound decision.
Mennie and his fellow members of the medical disaster preparedness team are already planning for the next hurricane or storm.
Team members will conduct a debriefing and review what they learned from their experience caring for patients during Hurricane Laura.
“You always find little things that you can do better,” he says.
“I’m very proud of our hospital team and medical staff and the way they responded during this major hurricane,” says Craig Desmond, president of the hospital. “They were here before, during and after the storm to take care of our patients. We wanted to make sure we got the patients we evacuated to our sister hospital in Houston; we felt that was in the best interests of patient care and safety.”
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How a Hospital Evacuated COVID-19 Patients for Hurricane Laura originally appeared on usnews.com
Correction 09/14/20: A previous version of this story reported that all of the patients transferred from the Medical Center of Southeast Texas arrived at another hospital without complication. U.S. News subsequently learned that one patient became critical while being transported. The patient died after being admitted to another facility.