Hurricane Ian: Florida care facilities face utility disruptions, evacuations after Cat 4 storm

Updated Sept. 30 at 2:30 p.m.

Florida's healthcare trade organizations reported thousands of patients that have been or are continuing to be evacuated from facilities two days after Hurricane Ian made landfall. 

Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, told Fierce Healthcare her organization knows of 16 hospitals that were evacuated within the last several days. The organization is not aware of any patients or health system employees that have died as a result of the hurricane.

"Fortunately, most of the hospitals fared extremely well and did not sustain any significant damage to their facilities," she said.

The bigger challenge has been damage to local infrastructure such as electrical grids and water supply that are "certainly beyond the control of our healthcare facilities," she said.

Right now the "major focus," has been three hospitals in Lee County that are without water due to disrupted public water supply, she said. The three hospitals alone have nearly 900 patients among them. 

"Some of those patients have been evacuated, including from a children's hospital, with the most critical being evacuated urgently," Mayhew said. "And arrangements are being coordinated with the state and with hospitals around the state to take placement of a number of these patients, as the hospitals continue to work locally, on getting their water restored."

A representative of the Florida Health Care Association (FHCA) said there have been roughly 8,000 patients evacuated from 47 nursing homes and 115 assisted living facilities.

Seventy-eight nursing home have lost power and all have implemented emergency plans involved generator power, they said. FHCA did not have information on power loss at assisted living facilities.

The group said it has also not seen any reports of serious injuries or deaths among residents, but that there has been structural damage and flooding reported among their assessments.

The homes and facilities are workign with local emergency officials to monitor rising waters in case any further evacuations are needed, the FHCA representative said.

Hospitals will also continue to coordinate evacuations and support as needed from regional authorities, Mayhew said.

However, the disruption of downstream care facilities will likely become the longer-term challenge for the state's healthcare organizations. 

"We are greatly concerned about the impact to local nursing homes to assisted living facilities to group homes," Mayhew said. "And many of the patients that our hospitals care for are often being discharged back to those facilities and group homes, and that has been completely upended as a result of the hurricane. So that is going to be an ongoing focus for quite some time."

Hurricane Ian made landfall in western Florida Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center. It passed through the state and reentered the Atlantic Ocean, where it returned to a Category 1 status before hitting the Carolinas on Friday.

Several Florida hospitals have evacuated patients, canceled elective surgeries and suspended other services in preparation for the “catastrophic” hurricane hitting shores Wednesday.

Hurricane Ian grew to Category 4 intensity as it traveled from Cuba to Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Winds exceeding 74 miles per hour hit Florida’s southwestern shores Wednesday morning with the eye expected to make landfall during the early afternoon, per the center’s models.

Alongside state of emergency declarations and blanket recommendations to evacuate inland, the White House said there are over 1,300 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responders, 300 ambulances and a handful of Department of Health and Human Services disaster medical assistance teams deployed across the state to support emergency efforts.

Hospitals across the greater Tampa area aimed to limit the damage to their facilities and patients.

Tampa General Hospital said in a Tuesday afternoon statement that it had suspended most visitors and canceled all electives scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. It also shut down an emergency department, radiation oncology and all of its ambulatory surgery centers, urgent care centers and clinics through Thursday.  

The hospital is putting several weather-minded infrastructure upgrades it’s made over the years to the test, the Tampa Bay Times and The Weather Channel report. These include the relocation of critical systems to floors 25 feet above ground, reinforced and watertight doors "to prepare for inclement weather" and a temporary wall around the facility specially designed to protect against flooding.

HCA Healthcare West Florida Division had finished transferring patients from its HCA Florida Pasadena Hospital, HCA Florida South Tampa Hospital and HCA Florida West Tampa Hospital to other locations as of a Tuesday statement. Services were suspended at those hospitals as well as 11 free-standing emergency rooms.

“Our preparedness activities include ensuring our hospitals have enough caregivers, medications, supplies, food, water and generator power to care for our patients during the storm,” the hospital chain wrote in its announcement. “We continue to monitor the storm’s track and our leadership is communicating with local, state and federal emergency planning organizations and HCA Healthcare’s emergency preparedness team to ensure resources are available and in place, in advance of the storm.”

AdventHealth said it “made the difficult decision” to shut down and evacuated its AdventHealth North Pinellas hospital, which was located in a mandatory evacuation zone, but noted that its Palm Harbor Emergency Department still remains open.

AdventHealth Medical Group and its Centra Care urgent care also closed locations across West and Central Florida, although the system said it would be offering its video telehealth visits to Floridians for free through its AdventHealth app.

BayCare said it closed and evacuated its Morton Plant North Bay Hospital and its Bardmoor Emergency Department, but that as of Wednesday morning all other hospitals in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties remained open with elective procedure cancellations.

Several BayCare outpatient centers across the three counties were also shut down. The system said it would be offering a free telehealth visit to all registered users of its BayCareAnywhere app or those who use the coupon code “IAN” and encouraged any Florida residents with a scheduled physician appointment to lean on the virtual option.

Sarasota Memorial Health closed its urgent care and physicians group locations but noted its emergency care centers will remain open.

Moffitt Cancer Center canceled all appointments Wednesday and Thursday “with the exception of scheduled virtual health visits.”

Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital said its main hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, will remain open but limit visitation to a single guest and postpone nonurgent procedures from Tuesday through Friday. All of its outpatient care locations are also closed through “at least Thursday.”

Several of the health systems’ announcements stressed that their hospitals and facilities should not be looked to as public shelters.

“In order to ensure our ability to focus on patient care, we are unable to provide a safe haven to the general public before, during or after a storm,” BayCare wrote. “We encourage everyone in the community to place ultimate importance on their health and safety and follow the instructions of your local emergency management authorities.”

Several nursing homes located in FEMA flood hazard zones also planned resident evacuations to hospitals or sister locations, the Tampa Bay Times reported.