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Texas hospitals deal with winter storm disaster

On Wednesday, 45 hospitals were declared an internal disaster due to lack of water pressure or pipes bursting, according to SETRAC CEO. 

Susan Morse, Managing Editor

It's hard to watch what's been unfolding in Texas over the past week as millions of residents deal with freezing temperatures, power outages, burst pipes and no potable water. Some Texans are boiling snow for drinking water.

At least 24 people have died, many in accidents caused by efforts to stay warm.

Hospitals in the state are also facing crisis situations. Hospitals by and large are running off generators, said Darrell Pile, CEO of the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council in Houston, which operates catastrophic medical operation centers during emergencies.

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On Wednesday night, 45 hospitals were declared an internal disaster, Pile said. This was due either to absence of water pressure or pipes bursting, especially in key departments such as an operating room or an imaging center. 

"We now have 12.3 million people on a boil-water notice, and that then not only affects hospitals but nursing homes and other care facilities," Pile said.

Living in homes without heat, residents are using emergency rooms as places to warm up, Pile said. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner opened the George R. Brown convention center as a warming center. The center was also used in 2005 to house evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

"Hospitals ERs are very, very busy and inundated not only with sick people, but worried well people," Pile said.

And they're also still dealing with COVID-19.

On Monday, health officials in Texas scrambled to administer more than 5,000 vaccine doses before they expired after the storm knocked out power to the freezers storing the vaccines, according to ABCNews. Harris County public health officials said that the facility that stored their doses of Moderna vaccine lost power early Monday morning, and a backup generator also failed. 

A plan was put into place to expedite allocation of those vaccines to locations where there were large groups of people, and that didn't require too much driving to reach. With appropriate medical personnel on site to administer the doses, according to the report.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates the electrical grid, unconnected to the national grid, has come under fire for not being prepared for such an emergency and for having rolling blackouts to forestall a statewide blackout.

Some hospitals have been coming back online in the last two days, Pile said, as ERCOT finds ways to funnel electricity to the facilities.

But hospitals were prepared for a power outage during a disaster, according to Pile.

"We have not heard a cry-out in a consistent way," Pile said of hospitals. "Hospitals are well prepared for disasters because we go through hurricanes."

What they don't go through is pipes bursting and mechanical issues, he said.

On Tuesday night, at least two hospitals in Austin were left without water and heat, forcing patients and staff to transport human waste in trash bags and refrain from showering or even washing their hands, according to the New York Post. St. David's South Austin Medical Center and Dell Children's Medical Center were especially hard hit. 

One of the big challenges is that the winter storm affected the entire state. The hardest hit area was in the panhandle at the Oklahoma border, according to Pile.

"This disaster involves all resources in the state of Texas," he said. "In other disasters we could count on San Antonio and Dallas and Austin ambulances. They're not available in this case."

Supply deliveries have been a big issue as roads were initially impassable. Supplies are now coming back through. 

"Today we are bringing in bottled water," Pile said.

Residents are dripping water to keep pipes from freezing, but with limited water and water pressure, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted a request to ask residents not to run water to keep the pipes from bursting, but to instead, turn off water.

Turner tweeted Wednesday, "Be conservative on water usage today. It is needed for hospitals and fires."

The winter storm in Texas is being compared to Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in Texas and Louisiana in August 2017. Pile said he lived through Hurricane Harvey, and also Hurricane Ike in 2008, and this is worse.

"I've been here 35 years and have never seen this happening, especially not for four days in a row," Pile said Thursday afternoon. "I grew up in Maryland and Pennsylvania, but here houses don't have pipes insulated. People are not accustomed to driving on ice or snow."

Pile said the challenges have hopefully peaked after Texans were looking at temperatures dropping to 24 degrees last night and to 32 during the day. 

"The worst night our temps dropped to 11 degrees," Pile said. "That's without factoring the wind chill."

Warmer temperatures are ahead, even projected into the 60s next week. 

"Saturday the sun comes out," Pile said, "and we return to normal." 

Twitter: @SusanJMorse
Email the writer: susan.morse@himssmedia.com