Confronting the public health aftermath of Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma
Hurricane Irma's aftermath includes public health dangers from receding toxic floodwaters. (Photo by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Receding floodwaters and lack of power in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Irma have left some residents prone to infection. As healthcare facilities respond, government agencies moved to support their extraordinary efforts.

Areas like Everglades City in Florida have experienced the perfect conditions for outbreaks of infection after residents waded through potentially toxic floodwaters that washed through the area, according to an article in USA Today. In several cases, people with small cuts or scrapes wound up hospitalized with major infections after exposure to what EMT workers called “basically sewage.”

Long-term power outages have also raised the risk of mold growth as residents have had few ways to dry out their homes. Compounding matters, full-time medical assistance made available by the state’s bureau of emergency services arrived late to the area after city officials failed to ask for their help, according to the article.

New York University researchers recently published a pair of reports underscoring the importance of communication both with and among medical staff in an emergency. Their work, based on responses to flooding after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, showed that many of the nurses who treated patients during the storm also came from impacted communities. Nurses proved extremely resourceful during the crisis, but also prone to burnout from the high level of stress involved in dealing with such a major public health event under such adverse circumstances.

“Our research shows that maintaining good communication with peers and hospital leaders after the hurricane helped the nursing staff feel more connected and less stressed,” noted Christine T. Kovner, RN, Ph.D., who teaches geriatric nursing at NYU Meyers.

The federal government has also made moves to increase access to medical care as area hospitals recover or come back online in the wake of the storm.

The Department of Health and Human Services activated a program that helps provide reimbursement for hospitals dealing with post-hurricane care at up to 110% of Medicare rates. The program also provides coordinated medical response teams to assist and support local medical professionals.

CMS has also granted exceptions (PDF) to certain Medicare quality reporting and value-based purchasing programs. Facilities in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands will receive the exemption without having to file the usual formal request.

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