Emergencies collide in COVID-battered South bracing for Hurricane Ida

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.

"Our ability to take in a big influx would certainly be very challenging," Thomas said. 

In Terrebonne Parish, southwest of New Orleans, hospital officials echoed Thomas late last week, and asked residents to properly prepare for the hurricane to preserve hospital resources.”

“If there is a massive influx of patients due to weather casualties, it will be taxing on our already drained system due to COVID,” Terrebonne General Hospital said in a statement. “So please be careful when preparing your homes before and cleaning up after the storm.”

Officials around the region stress that they’re battle-tested and well-equipped at this time to weather power outages.

“In the past, bad experiences have helped us achieve a degree of effectiveness,” said Greg Stock, CEO of Thibodaux Regional  in Lafourche Parish, north of Terrebonne. “We are prepared for emergencies that might come during and after the storm. ... We have a surge plan in case an unexpected number of patients come, and [we] feel really great about our leaders, frontline middle managers that that are very capable and very dedicated, and our staff, the workers throughout the facility.”

Still, Stock acknowledged the ongoing strain COVID-19 patient surges have had on hospital’s ability to fully staff critical care units and other specialties. Alabama and Mississippi have faced severe staff shortages in recent months, with 2,000 fewer nurses than last year in Mississippi and hundreds of vacant positions in Alabama. 

“That is a challenge, and it wears on people,” Stock said.

On Mississippi’s coast, Singing River Health System is preparing with four days of food, generators, pharmaceuticals, linens, bulk oxygen tanks and small cylinders and anything else patients and staff might need.

The goal is to protect patients and allow hospital operations to continue uninterrupted, said Randall Cobb, director of facilities and services. But even prior to the storm, some of Singing River’s emergency rooms are seeing hours-long wait times due to bed demand. 

“COVID presents a few challenges that we normally don’t have during a hurricane, No. 1 being availability of rooms. All hospitals right now are strapped,” Cobb said. “So, in a hurricane, unless you are in a true, dire emergency, as are most hospitals in our state even without a hurricane, there will be limited opportunity to help.”

Cobb said staff may need to triage patients to accommodate the most emergent cases and send other patients elsewhere.

“We would have to get very creative, but we’re not going to turn down someone that needs life-saving care,” Cobb said. “We’re just not going to do that.”

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Melissa Brown at 334-240-0132 or mabrown@gannett.com.