Hurricane Ian’s aftermath: Florida hospitals evacuate patients due to lack of water

Lee Health has transferred hundreds of patients because there’s no running water. Patients are being moved out to facilities outside of Lee County, which sustained heavy damage.

Even after Hurricane Ian has moved away from Florida, hospitals and health systems continue to struggle with the aftermath of the storm.

Lee Health, which operates four hospitals in Lee County, Florida, is evacuating hundreds of patients. Three of the system’s four hospitals have no running water, said Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health.

“We have made the very difficult decision to evacuate our patients,” Antonucci said in a video message Thursday.

Lee Health is moving patients to facilities outside of Lee County, Antonucci said. The southwest Florida county, home to Cape Coral and Fort Myers, suffered severe damage to Ian, including widespread power outages, water service disruptions, and battered roads and bridges, including portions of Sanibel Causeway being swept away.

Lee Health has been transferring patients Thursday and Friday. Lee Health’s emergency departments will continue to remain open.

“We will provide emergency care and then triage those patients to where they need to go, if they do need to be admitted,” Antonucci said.

The Agency for Health Care Administration, a Florida regulatory body, said the system had to transfer patients due to the lack of running water, and Antonucci said, “We agree with that.”

“We cannot run a health system and a hospital without running water,” he said. “It’s critical to what we do, not only from the perspective of patient care, but for fire protection.”

Lee Health’s hospitals are in generally good shape, Antonucci said, but the system said some campuses and outpatient facilities “sustained significant damage.” The lack of water and power are the main issues, the system said. Lee Health said it is offering free telehealth services to the community.

‘All hands on deck’

Hundreds of Lee Health’s patients are being transferred to the NCH Healthcare System in Naples. Jonathan Kling, chief operating officer of NCH Healthcare System, said in a town hall Thursday the system expects to take in about 400 patients from Lee Health.

“We will max out our system,” Kling said.

To accommodate the influx of patients from Lee Health, NCH has said outpatient facilities will remain closed through Monday, Oct. 3. Kling said that is necessary to free up staff.

“We are going to need all hands on deck to care for an additional 400-plus patients from Lee Health,” Kling said in the town hall.

NCH will have to house some patients in areas that aren’t set up for patient care, Kling said.

NCH is getting assistance from the National Guard and the Florida Department of Health. But NCH is also looking for respite housing for staff. Typically, workers would use empty rooms.

“With the amount of patients we’ll get, we won’t have that luxury,” Kling said.

NCH hasn’t stopped caring for patients in the storm, but Ian has taken a toll. Paul Hiltz, president and CEO of the NCH Healthcare System, said the organization is offering assistance to staff. Some have seen property damage in the storm.

“There’s a lot of suffering out there,” Hiltz said.

Thousands transferred

Across Florida, at least 15 hospitals transferred patients due to the hurricane, the Florida Hospital Association said Thursday. Some hospitals transferred patients to other facilities before Ian made landfall.

More than 7,000 patients and residents have been transferred from 150 healthcare facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living facilities, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Healthcare workers have had vehicles damaged in the flooding. Some have had to navigate flooded streets. Some healthcare workers said they feel frustrated because they don’t feel adequately supported in the storm.

Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have been pushed to the limit well before Ian’s arrival, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff are going to need counseling, said Sarah Warren, a nurse in southwest Florida.

“I’m very worried for the mental health and well-being of my colleagues,” Warren said.

HCA Florida Fawcett Hospital in Port Charlotte remained closed Friday after the winds from Ian tore off part of the roof, HCA Florida Healthcare said. The hospital also received some flooding. About 160 patients had to be transferred. HCA Florida Englewood Hospital is also closed. HCA Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest health systems, operates scores of hospitals and care sites in Florida.

BayCare, which operates several hospitals in Florida, has reopened some medical group offices Friday and expects all will be open Monday. Some urgent care locations remain closed.

Tampa General Hospital says all of its medical group offices and most of its urgent care centers have reopened as of Friday afternoon.