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How Health Systems are Preparing for Another Active Hurricane Season

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Alongside continued global supply disruptions and ongoing efforts to manage the pandemic, experts are predicting yet another particularly active U.S. hurricane season in 2021. As such, healthcare providers and vaccination sites will need to prepare accordingly.

Hunkering Down for a Busy Season

So what does the 2021 hurricane season have in store?

According to forecasters, another busy year is in the cards with projections between 16 and 20 storms, and about half of them forecast to mature into hurricanes. Fourteen storms and seven hurricanes are considered average. Reasons for the above-average forecast include predicted lack of El Niño and warmer than normal subtropical Atlantic waters.

The upcoming 2021 season, which officially begins on June 1 and ends on November 30, follows up a record-breaking 2020 with 30 named storms and 13 hurricanes that caused as much as $65 billion in damage.

The Continued Impact of COVID-19

Even with U.S. COVID-19 disease spread on the decline, providers and communities still have to contend with the pandemic’s impact in conjunction with hurricane preparedness, mitigation and response.

Mass-shelter spaces such as school gymnasiums, sports arenas or convention centers will largely be available to those in need, but the American Red Cross says it will still follow COVID-19 protocols at its shelters this year. This includes COVID-19 testing for those seeking shelter as well as designated isolation areas and physical distancing practices.

Hurricane season can also create added barriers for patients seeking access to COVID-19 vaccines. Last year’s back-to-back hurricanes, for instance, left communities in southwest Louisiana devastated with thousands of residents still displaced. Vaccination efforts need to consider limitations these individuals and others may experience as a result of past or upcoming storms - including access to the internet or a smartphone for vaccine education, outreach and scheduling - or transportation to vaccination sites.

We aren’t out of the woods with supply availability, either. While providers are largely seeing more personal protective equipment (PPE), a 2021 storm coupled with ongoing demand spikes and global manufacturer, logistics and labor issues could lead to shortage situations. Beyond PPE and other vital healthcare supplies, ancillary products are also a concern. Take, for instance, limited U.S. lumber availability that could impact preparedness efforts, including boarding up windows and other areas.

In applying lessons learned from the pandemic, hospitals and health systems are getting increasingly proactive and predictive when it comes to supply chain resilience and disaster prep.

Here are several key actions providers are taking to ensure hurricane preparedness and mitigate risk:

1 - Review and Refresh Hurricane Plans

Hospitals are challenged in the face of a hurricane, including whether to evacuate patients and how to endure the storm while maintaining effective patient care. But with the pandemic still in the picture, the upcoming 2021 season could shape up to be particularly trying for providers in high-risk hurricane areas.

An early-season landfall poses significant risk to many hospitals and health systems still recovering from COVID-19 and dealing with existing supply disruptions in several categories.

That’s why reviewing and updating hurricane emergency plans is critical - before, during and after an event - and to include any response changes made during COVID-19. In addition to contact lists and phone numbers, providers are including detailed sheltering and staffing protocols as part of comprehensive planning.

For example, providers are evaluating the spaces appropriate to shelter patients, given physical distancing protocols and COVID-19 case capacity. If sheltering forces patients to spread out across a facility, additional nurses may need to be available, requiring additional planning as to where to house staff on-site.

2 - Practice Disaster Response Drills

Equally important to hurricane plan review is running through the plan as a team and ensuring all hospital staff understand their roles.

Practicing emergency response drills is paramount as is effective coordination with local, county and state officials, weather experts and first responders. Partnerships for stronger hurricane preparedness and response are critical, particularly in the event of patient evacuations and limited capacity.

Aim to reconnect with facilities across the region where patients could be sent, and develop a reliable communication process with regional incident commands so that providers remain up-to-date about capacity, structural challenges or impending evacuations within their region.

Case managers should also work with community partners as well as high-risk patients, such as frequent utilizers of the emergency department, to prepare at-risk populations for changes in shelter protocols.

3 - Assess Supplies and Safety Stock

The pandemic put in stark terms the need for a technology-enabled supply chain that can better anticipate future shocks and minimize their impact.

A natural disaster coupled with a COVID-19 case spike could result in the need for increased supply or food allocations compared to a facility’s historical purchasing pattern during hurricane season.

In preparation for the 2021 season, forward-thinking providers are now leveraging technology that overlays clinical and supply chain data, offering near real-time information to guide preparations for surges in bed and supply capacity.

These forecasting tools are imperative for providers to understand how patient volume and supply projections overlay with hurricane preparedness plans, enabling informed inventory management and purchasing strategies.

Regardless of whether there are 20 named storms this year or 10, it only takes one impactful storm to disrupt provider operations.

With proper preparation, healthcare providers can keep staff, patients and community members as safe and ready as possible.

For our part, Premier has recognized the importance of risk management for years, and we have built forward-thinking technology and capabilities to prevent product shortages - helping our members fare better during COVID-19 than most others.

Premier’s dedicated Disaster Response team serves as an extra set of hands and legs for our members during a hurricane, pandemic or other emergency. We work across contracted suppliers, member health systems, business continuity experts and communications functions to serve as conduits for information and preparedness. Learn More.

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