Many Florida Hospitals Damaged by Hurricane, Evacuating Patients

Kerry Dooley Young

October 12, 2018

Many Florida hospitals have evacuated or are in the midst of evacuating patients due to damage and disruptions caused by Hurricane Michael, and government health agencies are seeking ways to provide both immediate and longer-term assistance in affected areas.

The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration on Thursday afternoon reported that 10 hospitals planned to evacuate patients or had already done so, as did about two dozen nursing homes and assisted-living centers.

Hurricane Michael prompted a widespread state of emergency in Florida ahead of its arrival. It struck particularly hard on the state's northern strip, known as the panhandle, as reflected in reports of damage to the Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart in Panama City, Florida. A section of the roof collapsed in the hospital's materials management building, compromising a significant store of supplies. The storm also caused cooling and plumbing problems, loss of information systems, substantial quantities of broken glass.

Significant damage done to the Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart in Panama City, Florida, from Hurricane Michael.

As a result, Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart said it would need to evacuate about 200 patients, including 39 intensive care patients, who would be the first transferred to other sites. Subsequent patient transfers will be determined on the basis of medical need, the hospital said in a statement. Patients from Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart will be transferred to Ascension hospitals in Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama. Evacuation is expected to be complete within 48 hours, the hospital said in a statement.

Patients being airlifted from the Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart in Panama City, Florida.

During the storm, the hospital provided shelter to its employees and their families and pets as well as many first responder emergency personnel. More than 1500 people, in addition to over 200 patients, were sheltered at Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart, the hospital said. Ahead of the storm, the hospital staff secured back-up generators, extra food, water, fuel, and additional medical supplies.

Officials at another Panama City, Florida, hospital, Gulf Coast Medical Center, said they were evacuating about 130 patients, starting with the most critically ill.

"Until we can be certain of stable public power, water, and sewage systems, our patients will be safest in one of our sister hospitals in a neighboring community that was not as severely impacted by the hurricane," the hospital said in a statement.

Both hospitals say they are keeping their emergency departments open.

Other healthcare sites, such as Emerald Coast Behavioral Hospital, a psychiatric treatment facility in Panama City, were continuing in "shelter in place" mode.

"All patients and staff are safe within the facility. The facility is on generator power and has sufficient supplies on hand. The facility structure did sustain damages, which are currently being assessed," Emerald Coast said in a statement to Medscape Medical News.

Florida's Department of Health has 19 ambulance strike teams with 90 ambulances to aid with evacuations of healthcare facilities as well as support search and rescue operations, according to a statement from the office of Gov. Rick Scott.

Federal Response

Federal health agencies also are taking steps to address both the immediate consequences of Hurricane Michael and the expected disruption in people's lives during the aftermath of the storm.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), for example, said on Wednesday that it would help with efforts to ensure that people who need dialysis can receive treatment despite disruptions caused by the hurricane. The agency also said it's looking for ways to ease future administrative burden on clinicians in the affected areas.

CMS said it intends to issue temporary waivers and modify certain Medicare, Medicaid, and Children's Health Insurance Program requirements. The waivers will be listed on the a CMS website. The agency also said its regional offices will be granting "provider-specific requests" for certain hospitals and other facilities in Florida.

CMS also intends to establish a special enrollment period for certain people seeking insurance plans offered through the Federal Health Insurance Exchange and to all Medicare beneficiaries.

"This gives people impacted by the hurricane the opportunity to gain access to health coverage on the Exchange or change their Medicare health and prescription drug plans immediately if eligible for the special enrollment period," CMS said.

CMS also said it will temporarily suspend certain requirements for Medicare beneficiaries who have lost or have sustained damage to their durable medical equipment, prosthetics, orthotics, and supplies as a result of the hurricane.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said needs regarding the local blood supply appear to have been met in affected areas. The FDA and other members of the American Association of Blood Banks Task Force are monitoring the situation closely and stand ready to provide assistance if needed.

In addition, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said it has teams of personnel from the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) in Alabama and Florida. More than 125 HHS personnel are deployed, and an additional 100 personnel from the NDMS and the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps are on alert and are ready to deploy if needed.

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