Mississippi Gulf Coast hospitals, overrun with COVID-19 patients and understaffed to handle the growing health care crisis, are preparing for another potential disaster: Hurricane Ida.
As Ida churns toward the Gulf states, Coast hospitals say they’re still waiting on the additional nurses called in by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to help manage the COVID-19 patient surge. Severe weather brought on by a hurricane — even if Ida doesn’t make direct landfall in Mississippi — could add even more stress to an already struggling health care system.
“Access to care is a national issue, but a hurricane makes it even worse,” said Randall Cobb, the Singing River Health System’s director of facilities and support. “Hospitals are at capacity. In our emergency departments, there are multiple-hour wait times.”
Ida is forecast to be a Category 3 or 4 storm by the time it makes landfall late Sunday or early Monday, bringing the possibility of deadly conditions, long-lasting power outages, flash flooding and high-speed winds. The storm’s projected path as of Friday afternoon places its landfall in Louisiana, though that prediction could change.
Mississippi’s three Gulf Coast counties — Hancock, Harrison and Jackson — were under hurricane watches on Friday afternoon.
“Having a large patient census during any storm is never desirable, as it requires us to house more resources than normal, which equals more people in harm’s way,” said Gulfport Memorial’s safety officer Ken McDowell. “Essentially, we are implementing two emergency plans at one time for both the pandemic and the hurricane.”
Gov. Tate Reeves announced on Tuesday about 1,000 additional health care workers would be deployed across 61 Mississippi hospitals due to the COVID staffing shortages. Singing River’s hospitals in Ocean Springs, Gulfport and Pascagoula are expecting 53 nurses, but they have yet to arrive.
“We just don’t know a time frame of how soon that will be,” said the hospital system’s spokeswoman Sarah Duffey.
Gulfport’s Memorial Hospital had 83 patients with COVID-19 as of Friday afternoon, 22 of whom were on ventilators. Memorial said they, too, were still waiting on the MEMA clinicians to arrive.
Reeves said hospitals would start receiving the new staffers within nine days of their request. Singing River has welcomed about a dozen new respiratory therapists and two paramedics so far.
But it’s the additional nurses the hospitals need to actually grow the number of patients they can care for, Duffey said.
Cobb said because of the staffing shortages and already long waits, Gulf Coast residents need to be aware of whether their health concerns during the hurricane are more appropriate for a special needs shelter — which will have generated power during outages and oxygen canisters on hand — rather than emergency rooms.
“If you cannot breathe at all, absolutely come to the hospital,” Cobb said. “But if you’re running low on oxygen or concerned you’re going to run low, the counties have put some things in place so they’re prepared.”
Hospitals will continue to triage care following any major storm. That means new patients are treated in order of the severity of their ailment. The capacity issues are all the more reason to heed any travel warnings or mandatory evacuation early next week.
“Stay off the road and stay safe, unless you have a true emergency,” said Memorial’s chief administration office April LaFontaine. “This will allow for us to keep emergency rooms and facilities available for patients who really need them.”
Cobb said Singing River’s hospitals prepare to have a week’s worth of supplies and power should a direct hit devastate the region. Memorial has its emergency generators ready with five extras on standby.