COVID-19 pandemic meets hurricane season: How Houston’s Memorial Hermann is preparing

Houston is bracing for an unprecedented first— preparing for a potentially intense hit from a hurricane during a pandemic. The track for Hurricane Laura has placed landfall late Wednesday to early Thursday near the Texas-Louisiana state line, with Houston still inside the cone, according to the National Hurricane Center.

As area hospitals ramp up to get supplies in place, Houston’s Memorial Hermann has activated its emergency plan, assigning separate teams, Team A and B, to help divide the workload during Hurricane Laura.

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The hospital’s overriding objective is to serve the community by having a plan to shelter-in-place and providing ongoing care for patients for up to 96 hours if needed, according to Memorial Hermann’s Chief Operating Officer Tom Flanagan. In an interview with on Tuesday, Flanagan outlined what the hospital system is doing differently this year at its 14 campuses to prepare for hurricane season in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Question: Could you give me an overview of how you’re approaching hurricane planning this year?

Flanagan: We do disaster drills pertaining to hurricane season every year.  We’ll have two teams when it comes to hurricanes— Team B is the prep team and Team A is the ride-out team.  About 48 or 72 hours prior to landfall, Team B comes in to do the prep work and help prepare the agency for impending weather conditions.  Once Team B finishes their prep work, then Team A heads into the hospital. They come in about 24 hours before landfall and must shelter-in-place for the entire storm. Team A must shelter in place for up to 96 hours. Then, Team B returns.

Question:  What preparations have you made for Hurricane Laura in the last 24 hours?

Flanagan: Basically in the preparation phase, we’re responsible to prepare for 96 hours of being sheltered in place. What we’ve been doing for the last couple of days is securing and procuring all the provisions needed to run the campus for the next 96 hours. That’s food, water, pharmaceutical and medical supplies and of course we have to make sure that all our generators topped off with fuel so that we don’t have to switch to emergency power. That’s all been done in preparation of Hurricane Laura.

Question: What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to caring for patients during the coronavirus pandemic?

Flanagan:  The challenge that is different this time is that we’re dealing with the pandemic. Although the hurricane is coming, we still need to manage masking and social distancing during the pandemic.  The challenge that comes in occurs when we provide sleeping arrangements for physicians, nurses and support staff.  So we prepare our sleeping arrangements so that they are socially distant. Each time when they are socially distant, they will have to wear their mask while they are sleeping. If they’re sharing any kind of sleeping quarters, they have to be masked.

Question: What’s your message to Houstonians to better protect them ahead of the storm?

Flanagan: This is the biggest message I would share: Don’t let the storm detour all the progress we’ve made in the community through social distancing and masking everyone.  We’ve seen in Houston how our practices of masking and social distancing have assisted us in bringing our numbers down.

Question: If power goes out and the hospital has a large number of patients on ventilators, will there be enough backup generators that can handle it?

Flanagan: Yes, you are required by regulations that all of our emergency equipment must be on emergency power at all times. If we lose our regular operating power, it automatically flips over to generator emergency power.

Question:  Are you more optimistic now that numbers have improved for Houston regarding coronavirus spread?

Flanagan: The numbers have come down across the city since July. We’re in a much better situation today with our hospitals, as far as our level of care. The goal is that when we are able to shelter people in place for up to 96 hours, at the max. If we have flooding and power lines down, it will be difficult to get supplies inside the hospital. If suppliers can’t get in, do we have enough supplies to sustain us? That’s why we prepare ahead for 96 hours.

Question:  What can Houstonians expect in terms of level of care during the busiest times, as the storm moves through the Houston area?

Flanagan: We have an obligation to our patients who we serve and we have an obligation to our staff. Houstonians need to be very appreciative and honestly feel very confident that our hospitals are well-versed to handle this emergency–and we’re better for that. Typically you’ll see in emergency departments, once the storm makes landfall, that’s when the emergency departments get inundated with patients. There’s a rationale to that. People are trying to assess property damage and repair things. They fall, they get hit with a tree limb. So that’s when the emergency department gets extremely busy.

Question:  What’s your message to the Houston community about the health care providers who’ve been fighting on the COVID-19 frontlines? Especially now that they are facing the challenge of Hurricane Laura as well?

Flanagan: Keep the healthcare providers in your thoughts and prayers. They have really had a tough year this year. They had to step up to the plate for COVID-19. And yet, now they’re all preparing to ride out Hurricane Laura. That really speaks volumes to the professionalism and the pride that our healthcare providers have.


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