South Florida hospitals close ahead of Hurricane Irma and launch disaster plans

A map showing the forecast track of Hurricane Irma as of Friday morning
Several hospitals in Florida have already closed or will shut their doors ahead of Hurricane Irma's expected arrival on Sunday. (National Hurricane Center)

Hospitals in South Florida are preparing for the worst, some shutting down as early as today in advance of Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm that could wreak havoc in the area if it makes landfall on Sunday.

The Department of Health and Human Services has already declared a public health emergency in Florida, following a similar move taken in late August in Texas and Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

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Several hospitals have already closed or will shut their doors ahead of the storm’s expected arrival on Sunday. Lower Keys Medical Center shut down its emergency room this morning and cancelled all elective surgeries and procedures. Baptist Health South Florida announced Fishermen’s Hospital is now closed, Mariners Hospital will shutter tonight and several primary care offices will also close.

Mercy Hospital closed after it evacuated more than 200 patients. And healthcare organizations that do plan to stay open are getting their buildings prepared, including stocking up on food, water and fuel for generators.

Satesh Bidaisee

Their preparation and communication about their plans before and after the storm are critical during public health emergencies such as these, said Satesh Bidaisee, associate professor and the deputy chairman for the Department of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at St. George's University School of Medicine.

He urged healthcare organizations to consider the population’s physical and mental needs before, during and after a natural disaster .“You are working with the most susceptible population to begin with who will need care before any disaster and then you’ll be overburdened with new cases,” Bidaisee said during an exclusive interview with FierceHealthcare.

Clinicians will be faced with patients who may have experienced a physical trauma as a result of the storm, have infectious diseases or other health issues due to exposure to mold and dust. Other patients may have behavioral health needs due to the overall trauma of experiencing the storm. Many patients become depressed and anxious or suffer from insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorders.

Furthermore, he said, physicians and nurses must also take into account that patients’ social network may be displaced as people, schools, employment and the community will be relocated and dispersed. Patients will also face financial losses, which will also impact their mental health.

“One may affect the other. If physical health is compromised, they may then have mental health issues. They all go together,” he said.

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And the trauma can go on for years as communities begin to rebuild after a natural disaster. Louisiana is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and New Jersey is still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, Bidaisee said.

Therefore, he said, it’s vital that hospital disaster preparation include projections of the populations that they will likely serve post-disaster and allocate and plan for resources and personnel.

Even if they weren’t in the path of the recent storms, Bidaisee advises hospitals across the country to make sure they have a plan in place and coordinate efforts with community groups, and state and federal agencies.

Although natural disasters have always been a challenge, he said the trend in the last five to 10 years have been storms that are more frequent and more intense. And the response and recovery from the disasters are prolonged, in part because there are less resources available as communities face more frequent storms that have a greater impact.