South, Gulf Coast hospitals prepare for Hurricane Ida amid COVID wave

For weeks, a new wave of COVID-19 cases has surged through the Gulf Coast region, threatening health care capacity and emergency services across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Now, with Hurricane Ida making landfall, the region could see a collision of two public health emergencies in areas still grappling with the most critical wave of the pandemic.

“We’ve got a hurricane season coming, we’ve got a pandemic,” said Mike Evans, director of the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency in coastal Alabama, where officials have reported negative ICU capacity for days because of COVID-19 cases. “How many more things can you pile on top of folks?”

Hurricane Ida slammed onto the Louisiana coast on Sunday as a Category 4 storm with punishing winds of 150 mph, life-threatening storm surge and potentially catastrophic rainfall. It first made landfall near Port Fourchon, less than 100 miles south of New Orleans. A short time later it made a second landfall a few miles to the north, near Galliano. 

Medical staff move COVID-19 patient who died onto a gurney to hand off to a funeral home van, at the Willis-Knighton Medical Center in Shreveport, La., Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. The hospital in northwestern Louisiana thought the COVID-19 pandemic was letting up. Then came the ongoing surge caused by the delta variant. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

In Louisiana, COVID-19 hospitalizations peaked at 3,022 on Aug. 17 and began dropping, a welcome sign as the state struggled to find beds and staff. But the COVID-19 hospitalizations, reported at 2,684 on Friday, are still comparatively high, filling critical care beds across the state. 

COVID-19 cases in Alabama continue to climb, as officials have been forced to call in federal medical teams to coastal areas crushed by an onslaught of critically ill patients. Two mobile morgue units were dispatched to the area last week in anticipation of a fatality spike, and hospitals around the state have been forced to treat ICU patients in hallway gurneys and emergency departments as ICU beds have bottomed out. 

More:Onslaught of critically ill patients, no ICU beds is ‘scenario we’ve all been dreading’

The National Guard arrives as Hurricane Sally leaves widespread damage in Gulf Shores, AL. Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.

Mississippi COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU usage are also at record-high levels.

“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 Ken McDowell, safety officer at Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, Mississippi. “Memorial has invested in hardening the facility to ensure we can meet the needs of the communities we serve. Essentially, we are implementing two emergency plans at one time for both the pandemic and the hurricane.” 

Five intensive care beds, part of the 32-bed Samaritan's Purse Emergency Field Hospital, are set up in one of the University of Mississippi Medical Center's parking garages, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. The field hospital joins a 20-bed field hospital and monoclonal antibody clinic opened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at UMMC in response to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Though COVID-19 numbers are headed in the right direction in Louisiana, hospitalizations are still high. The New Orleans-area Oschner Health system informed the state this week they have “limited capability” to take patient transfers, particularly from nursing homes that sometimes need to evacuate during storms. 

Oschner was prepared to take care of people who might come in for medical attention, CEO Warner Thomas said, but a large wave of new patients would be difficult.

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