In hurricane planning, it’s all about timing

Published 10:00 pm Monday, September 17, 2018

By Howard P. Kern

When hurricanes threaten Hampton Roads, businesses, government offices, courts and schools often close down, appropriately, while critical public safety and public works operations continue as long as they can.

For hospitals and health systems, hurricanes present the challenge of maintaining around-the-clock operations while keeping patients as well as physicians and staff safe. We drill weather events along with mass casualties and other disasters regularly to ensure that we are ready, but the real thing is more disruptive than a drill.

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The uncertain path of Hurricane Florence challenged decision makers in government to make the right call at the right time with less-than-optimal information, knowing that they would be criticized for doing too much too soon, or too little too late.

A mandatory evacuation order was issued in Currituck County. Sentara Life Care relocated 65 nursing center residents from our facility in Barco on the Currituck Sound to our nursing facilities in Portsmouth and Virginia Beach. Despite concerns for their own homes and families, clinical and administrative staff traveled with the residents to maintain continuity of care and the comfort of familiar faces.

Our team accomplished this safe relocation last Tuesday using a variety of transportation assets. Patients rode in wheelchair-accessible vans and ambulances. Our mass casualty evacuation bus, which accommodates wheelchairs and stretchers, also transported patients to safety from Currituck.

Sentara Albemarle Medical Center in Elizabeth City relocated five fragile ICU patients via ambulance to Sentara hospitals in Hampton Roads due to the potential for power disruption.

The ability to plan and execute such movements on short notice is one advantage of being a large, integrated health system with multiple sites of care and dedicated team members committed to contributing their skills, vehicles and solutions to keep our patients and residents safe.

We saw a case-in-point this past weekend when, with less than 24 hours’ notice, Sentara sent a 21-member team, including a physician, nurse practitioners, registered nurses and technical staff from multiple facilities to flooded New Bern at the request of the North Carolina Office of Emergency Management. Upon arrival, the team immediately staffed a field hospital and began treating local residents. I am proud to report Sentara sent more people than any health system, enough to support and work multiple 12-hour shifts to relieve their exhausted colleagues at local facilities.

We also prepared an evacuation plan for our nursing center in Norfolk. However, as the threat to Hampton Roads from Florence diminished, we opted to shelter in place. Among the 88 residents, there are many on ventilators or with feeding tubes. We concluded it was safer for those fragile patients to stay rather than to move them elsewhere.

With forecasters predicting a widespread storm event, all 12 Sentara hospitals across Virginia and northeastern North Carolina activated stand-by procedures for team members in all disciplines to sleep over, to ensure adequate staffing for all shifts regardless of flooding, downed trees and power lines and lack of public transportation. Hospitals and nursing centers laid in a week’s worth of food, linens and medications and topped up fuel for generators in case delivery trucks could not get through.

Our Home Care Services division ensured that certain patients had adequate medications and extra oxygen in case driving became too hazardous for nurses and therapists, who tend to work solo.

Optima Health Plan’s case workers with Commonwealth Community Care worked to ensure that thousands of Medicaid members with complex health conditions were as prepared as possible.

I want to commend our 28,000 team members for coming together as a team and living our mission to improve health every day through professional dedication, creative problem solving and outright grit. I want to thank the many government officials, both city and state, for working seamlessly with our teams to ensure that health care services in our local communities could continue during the weather emergency. I also appreciate the understanding of our patients, residents and health plan members as the Sentara team juggled personal concerns for home and family while delivering safe, quality care around the clock before, during and after Florence.

Howard P. Kern is president and chief executive officer of Sentara Healthcare.