Knowing how to prepare for a hurricane isn’t easy, especially if you are running a hospital. In the United States, hospital facilities are required by law to plan for disasters, including outlining emergency leadership and staffing, triage protocols, and how to perform a full-scale evacuation, as several Gulf Coast hospitals did during Hurricane Laura last fall. Making the wrong decision can cost dollars and lives, and there are always lessons to be learned.
A recent study published in Nature Communications may have one of those lessons. By cross-referencing 70 million Medicare hospitalizations with 16 years of local wind measures, researchers identified patterns of when older Americans tend to go to hospitals after storms and why. Unsurprisingly, hospital visits for injuries jumped post-storm. But so did several seemingly unrelated maladies.
The day after hurricane force winds, for instance, hospitalization rates for respiratory issues — asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — doubled on average and infectious disease visits spiked by roughly half. Visits for both remained higher than average throughout the week after hurricanes and tropical cyclones, as did hospitalizations for liver disease, delirium and dementia, and renal failure. Cancer visits dropped by 4 percent in the same time.
All told, an estimated 16,000 additional hospitalizations were associated with respiratory problems and 2200 with infectious disease. Reasons are varied but likely have to do with the loss of power needed for breathing equipment and exposure to contaminated flood water — more than 800 wastewater facilities reported spills after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
The results will help improve hospital preparedness for hurricanes. They will also clue hospitals in to how to stock medical supplies in the days before a storm and assign staff in the days after, crucial information when these facilities are strained. At a time when climate change is fueling more frequent and powerful cyclones, the study is also a reminder of the detrimental effect global warming has on health, even in wealthy countries.