Hurricane Florence, now a tropical depression, has so far killed at least 17 people in the Carolinas and closed multiple hospitals in its path as patients were moved to safety.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster lifted a mandatory medical evacuation order for healthcare facilities on Sunday. The state's department of health and environmental control (DHEC) said it moved more than 2,400 people from 114 healthcare facilities along the coast. Seven hospitals in the evacuation zone were closed Saturday.
In North Carolina, a 14-bed mobile hospital was sent to Pender County after Pender Memorial Hospital was flooded and evacuated. Nearby Wilmington's roads were submerged and emergency officials are working on a plan to get supplies to the city.
Hospitals were preparing for the storm last week, hoping not to see a repeat of problems after last year's hurricanes in Texas and Florida — and especially Puerto Rico, where many of the thousands of deaths in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria were blamed on lack of access to healthcare services.
Florence continues to rage in the Carolinas and Virginia despite its downgrade, and heavy rain is expected for the next couple of days. Flooding remains a danger this week and tornadoes have been confirmed in North Carolina.
Flooding is the primary concern today as the remnants of Florence push in, but it's possible a severe T'storm may produce damaging wind and an isolated tornado. #blameitonflorence #beweatherready @WMAR2Weather @WMAR2News #Baltimore #Harford #Annearundel #Howard #Carroll pic.twitter.com/QtetbEhFwN— Lynette Charles (@LynetteWMAR) September 17, 2018
The South Carolina DHEC is operating 11 special medical needs shelters for people "whose medical conditions exceed the capabilities of the general population shelters, but are not severe enough to require a hospital stay." DHEC's call center fielded more than 4,800 calls and assisted people with questions about special medical needs and other concerns.
North Carolina still has mandatory evacuation orders in six counties and voluntary orders in many others along the coast. On Saturday, multiple North Carolina hospitals had problems with their phone service, including outages.
.@NC_Governor Roy Cooper, along with several state and federal leaders, discuss storm response procedures today as rescue efforts are underway for areas impacted by Hurricane Florence. The storm is still set to dump several inches of rain across NC. #FlorenceNC pic.twitter.com/i5CcmTEcab— NC Emergency Managem (@NCEmergency) September 16, 2018
In Virginia, patients were taken from facilities in the mandatory evacuation zone, including patients from the Hampton VA Medical Center, who were transported to the Durham VA Medical Center.
Meanwhile, telehealth providers, such as American Well, Teladoc and Doctor on Demand, offered free services to people affected by the storm. Telehealth can fill gaps during disasters and offer virtual care to people who otherwise can't get medical care during a storm.
An American Well official said Monday the company saw hundreds of visits per day from people affected by the hurricane since starting outreach a week ago.
With more heavy rain expected, the storm's actual impact on hospitals will continue in the coming months. Last year, hospitals took a financial hit after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Major hospital chains like HCA, Community Health Systems and LifePoint Health have multiple facilities in the storm's path. LifePoint has nearly one-third of its hospital beds in the Carolinas. Those health systems will likely see a financial impact, including lower volumes, in this quarter.
Meanwhile, a new PwC report highlighted how hurricanes can have long-term consequences for hospitals. Natural disasters cost U.S. hospitals nearly $200 billion in 2017. Those losses came from closures, damages, canceled appointments, revenue cycle disruptions and displaced workers and patients.
The report reviewed what hospitals can do to prepare and react to natural disasters. To bounce back faster after a storm, PwC suggested:
- Take measures to protect the physical plant, including placing critical systems in an underground concrete location.
- Make sure you have a virtual backup to traditional services, such as virtual care.
- Try to have "ample days of cash" on hand so you can stay financially stable during and after a disaster.
- Create an aftermath plan.
- Respond to "bad information" on social media and other platforms during and after a disaster.