Hurricane Ida severely damaged Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma. (Photo by JC Canicosa/Louisiana Illuminator)
With four of the five hospitals in Louisiana’s bayou region almost entirely inoperable, state and federal officials are considering setting up a “field hospital” to provide medical care for Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Louisiana Department of Health were in southeastern Louisiana Wednesday figuring out what is needed to get more hospitals in Terrebonne and Lafourche functional.
If they cannot manage to get one of the damaged hospitals back up and running quickly, they may look at a temporary field hospital, several officials and health care advocates said Wednesday.
“The goal is to make sure there’s the best provision of healthcare services possible, and there are a number of ways to go about that, be it through supporting existing healthcare infrastructure that remains or setting up temporary additional services,” said Aly Neel, spokeswoman for the state health agency.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office declined to discuss the details of any field hospital plan.
Since Hurricane Ida made landfall, Terrebonne General Medical Center in Houma, Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma, Lady of the Sea General Hospital in Cut Off and Ochsner St. Anne in Raceland have all been evacuated. Their patients were moved to hospitals in other regions of the state — sometimes as far as Monroe and Shreveport.
Emergency rooms at Chabert and St. Anne are still staffed, but they can’t admit people with serious health care problems that require an overnight stay. St. Anne is also expected to open a six-bed behavioral health ward Wednesday night, but if a person needs additional care, the hospitals’ staff stabilizes and transfers that person to another facility.
That leaves just one major hospital — Thibodaux Regional Medical Center — offering full services in Terrebonne and Lafourche, which have a combined population of over 200,000 people. Warner Thomas, president of Ochsner Health, said the bayou region is short 250 to 300 hospital beds and 100 mental health slots because of hurricane-related closures.
“Are we worried about hospital capacity going forward? Yes,” Thomas said in a media call Tuesday.
The federal government is providing extra medical staff to the Thibodaux hospital to help with the influx of patients, but the hospital is in the very northern portion of the bayou region — at least 30 minutes away from its largest city of Houma.
“We have to have a working hospital of some kind,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, who is from Houma. “The bottom part of [Terrebonne] parish has nothing right now.”
Ida made landfall at Port Fourchon on the southern tip of Lafourche Sunday as one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the United States. The storm ripped through the bayou region leaving residents without water, power, fuel or reliable mobile phone service..
Government officials said power companies have offered no timetable for restoring electricity to southern Terrebonne and Lafourche. Water service has started to gradually come back in the northern part of Terrebonne, but still isn’t working in the southern part of the parish.
Hospitals tried to prepare for Ida by moving to generator power before the storm and keeping reserves of water and medication on hand. But they sustained damage to their buildings. Ida blew out windows and damaged roofs — dumping rainwater into their facilities. Generators also went down. It will be at least a week before Terrebonne General can admit patients again. Ochsner Health doesn’t have a timeline yet for when Chabert and St. Anne can fully open.
“If people need hospital services, they are going to be very limited,” said Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, who also represents Houma.
Terrebonne and Lafourche are home to much of Louisiana’s offshore oil and gas operations as well as its commercial fishing industry. The communities have been hammered by hurricanes in the past. Hurricane Rita in 2005 caused widespread flooding in the area, but it was no comparison to Ida, officials said.
“We’ve never been through any storm that looks like this and we have been through many storms here,” Magee said.
After Rita, some local hospitals were able to stay open because they didn’t flood — and the wind wasn’t nearly as destructive as it was during Ida, Magee said.
Ahead of Ida, Louisiana hospitals were trying to avoid evacuating patients because they weren’t sure they would be able to find beds for them elsewhere. Many hospitals across the South and in Texas are at capacity because of a recent surge of COVID-19 cases.
On Wednesday, Louisiana had 2,447 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 446 of those patients are on ventilators. That’s made it more difficult for hospitals that were spared by Ida to take in patients from those affected by the storm.
“From a critical care perspective, we’re still pretty tight in terms of being able to accept large numbers of inbound transfers,” said Robert Hart, chief medical officer for Ochsner Health, Louisiana’s largest healthcare provider on Tuesday.
Dozens of hospitals and nursing homes outside of the Bayou region are also running on generator power and using well water after Ida knocked out communities’ electricity and water services. But the New Orleans, Jefferson Parish and Northshore facilities seem stable so far, said Paul Salles, president of the Louisiana Hospital Association.
The biggest challenge moving forward, Salles said, is staffing. Hospitals have struggled to find enough medical professionals to treat COVID-19 patients, a problem compounded by Ida.
Doctors, nurses and other medical staff who are already based in Louisiana may need time off or want to relocate temporarily if their homes are damaged or they don’t have power. It’s also hard to bring in out-of-state hospital staff to help because hotel rooms are unavailable.
“It’s a problem getting contract nurses in because there is basically not a place for them to stay,” Salles said.
Ochsner is trying to make it more comfortable for its staff to remain in Louisiana. They’ve booked a thousands hotel rooms and are purchasing generators for the hotels to make sure they have reliable power and air conditioning.
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