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COVID-19 meets hurricane season: how HCA Healthcare hospitals prepare and respond

Photo of two men looking at computers with a superimposed Enterprise Preparedness and Emergency Operations logo over it

Annually, the Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30 – and this year has been an active one. So far, there have been five named storms that have turned into hurricanes. As HCA Healthcare hospitals along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts find themselves at the midpoint of hurricane season, they are also grappling with a storm of a different kind: a fourth coronavirus surge. 

HCA Healthcare’s Enterprise Emergency Operations Center (EEOC), a multi-disciplinary incident response team of nearly 200 leaders, sits at the helm of both COVID-19 and hurricane response. Based out of Nashville, Tennessee, the EEOC works with experts across HCA Healthcare’s more than 2,000 sites of care to provide resources and coordinate responses before, during and after any number of crises.

Armed with seasoned emergency operations leaders and a sophisticated underground “war room” filled with cutting-edge equipment and technology, the EEOC stands ready to support HCA Healthcare’s sites of care 24/7/365.

The EEOC prepositions response and systemically evaluates the status of threats. Using information systems, the team tracks weather, monitors law enforcement reports and watches what is happening on social media and in the news to respond and support our facilities accordingly.

Colleagues stand strong in the face of Hurricane Ida

For the EEOC, past hurricanes serve as constant reminders of the importance of emergency preparedness. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, HCA Healthcare centralized emergency resources to make it easier to circulate information and distribute supplies in the wake of disaster. Since then, much has changed in the advancement of HCA Healthcare’s ability to sustain healthcare services impacted by devastation. 

Using lessons gleaned from other catastrophic storms the organization has weathered, HCA Healthcare was able to arm Louisiana affiliate hospitals with the tools necessary to care for patients during Hurricane Ida – which hit 16 years to the date after Hurricane Katrina struck the Big Easy.

Five hospital caregivers wearing scrubs and face masks.
During Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm, groups of colleagues volunteered to stay overnight in HCA Healthcare’s Louisiana hospitals to ensure uninterrupted patient care. (Tulane Medical Center/New Orleans, Louisiana)

Ida preparedness activities included ensuring hospitals had enough staff, medications, supplies, food, water and generator power to continue to operate. Hospital lockdown teams were in place as Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana on Aug. 30, 2021, as a high-end Category 4 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.

HCA Healthcare’s three hospitals in the New Orleans area – Tulane Medical Center, Tulane Lakeside Hospital and Lakeview Regional Medical Center – remained open throughout Hurricane Ida. The hurricane brought extensive power outages, leaving the hospitals to operate on generator power in the wake of the storm.

In Alexandria, Louisiana, HCA Healthcare affiliate Rapides Regional Medical Center also remained open throughout Hurricane Ida and received evacuees from hard hit areas of southern Louisiana.

Because of the storm, all of Jefferson Parish was left without water pressure – including Tulane Lakeside Hospital in Metairie, Louisiana. Out of an abundance of caution, and to ensure continuity of care, the EEOC worked to safely transfer patients and colleagues at Tulane Lakeside Hospital to sister hospitals and other facilities in the region.

An orange and blue helicopter on the lawn outside a hospital.

Brian Rayl, a flight nurse and paramedic with HCA Houston Healthcare’s AIRLife team was called upon by the EEOC to assist in the transfer efforts at Tulane Lakeside Hospital.

Brian reflects on the resiliency of his fellow HCA Healthcare colleagues when his helicopter touched down in Louisiana to help: “Despite the catastrophic effects of the storm, the hospital and staff remained calm and provided expertise and compassion. Everyone was taking great care of their patients with mask-covered smiles on their faces. The nursing staff, the PT/OT/ST staff, the case manager and the cleaning staff were all dedicated to the care and safety of the patients, without wavering once.”

The safety of patients, their families and our colleagues remained at the forefront of the EEOC’s post-storm activities. Additional resources such as fuel trucks, water tanker trucks, temporary staffing and remediation teams were sent to support impacted facilities and ensure uninterrupted patient care.

As colleagues live in areas hit hard by Ida, HCA Healthcare secured services to support staff in their personal lives, so that they could continue to get to and from work to continue to care for patients. Colleagues were provided with services such as housing, hotel stays, gas, meals, a commissary, laundry and supplies like tarps.   

A collage of photos showing personal services provided to hospital teams.
In the wake of Hurricane Ida, HCA Healthcare’s Louisiana colleagues were supplied with personal services such as housing, hotel stays, gas, meals, a commissary, laundry and supplies like tarps. (Tulane Medical Center/New Orleans, Louisiana, and Lakeview Regional Medical Center/Covington, Louisiana)

Tulane Medical Center nurse Deon Guidroz lives in Thibodaux, an area hit hard by Ida. “My home had significant damage, mostly roofing, and it is livable, but we were without power and running water,” she said. “In order to provide care to other people, you have to be in a good place mentally. Being able to come to work and do what I do to take care of patients without having to worry about personal issues is just phenomenal.”

With thousands of stories like Deon’s, the HCA Healthcare Hope Fund launched into disaster relief efforts to meet the emergency needs of those affected by Hurricane Ida. The Hope Fund, a 501(c)3 charity run by colleagues, provides emergency funds to colleagues when significant hardships arise due to illness, injury, natural disasters or other difficult situations.

As of Sept. 10, 2021, more than 788 families have received assistance with emergency needs following Hurricane Ida totaling over $723,000, and about 50 additional families reach out for help each day.

Did you know?

Anyone can make a tax-deductible donation to the HCA Healthcare Hope Fund and 100% of it goes directly to colleagues in need. If you or a colleague you know is experiencing a financial hardship and needs help, visit the HCA Healthcare Hope Fund’s website to learn more and apply for aid.

Meet the eyes and ears behind the 24/7 watch

HCA Healthcare’s enterprise emergency operations program is led by Mike Wargo, vice president and chief of enterprise emergency operations. He’s been a key driver to make emergency operations a top priority by planning drills and encouraging hospital leaders to collaborate in regional coalitions before disaster strikes.

These coalitions include HCA Healthcare hospitals, EMS providers, emergency management organizations, public health agencies, competitors and other community service organizations. They share information about what supplies, personnel and capabilities they can provide.

Man wearing a suit and tie. Behind him is a screen with a map of the United States.
Mike Wargo leads HCA Healthcare’s enterprise emergency operations program as vice president and chief of emergency operations.

“I’m beyond proud of the commitment made by HCA Healthcare to ensure our ability to care for our patients, our staff and our communities,” says Mike. “I’m especially thankful to my team, and all those who dedicate countless hours to making this commitment real.”

“Above all else, we are committed to the care and improvement of human life…in normal times, and in times of adversity. We are here to fulfill the HCA Healthcare mission.”

Mike Wargo, HCA Healthcare’s vice president and chief of enterprise emergency operations

The familiar disaster protocols utilized to respond to hurricanes, wildfires and mass casualty events proved useful for the EEOC when they were met with the unfamiliarity of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

A man wearing a suit and tie sitting at a conference room table with a laptop. A woman is sitting across from him and typing on a laptop.
Jake Marshall, HCA Healthcare’s senior director of enterprise preparedness and emergency operations

Jake Marshall, senior director of enterprise preparedness and emergency operations for HCA Healthcare, explains, “Many crises you see on national news often impact HCA Healthcare communities. Because of the size and scale of our organization, we have the ability to move skilled leaders who’ve previously dealt with disasters to communities that are in crisis to help them with their experience and knowledge. That framework has readied our ability to rapidly respond throughout the past year and a half of the pandemic.”

Building on the momentum of COVID-19 emergency response, the EEOC launched a new program in June 2021 focused on incident management support, capturing expertise from a wide range of roles including chief executive officers, chief nursing officers, operations and emergency medical services teams.

A man wearing a black polo shirt standing at a desk.
Greg Roberts, NICU director at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver, Colorado.

“When I got the call that we were developing this emergency response team – I felt this was my opportunity to give back,” said Greg Roberts, NICU director HCA Healthcare’s Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver, Colorado.

When Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, hit Panama City, Florida, Greg was a NICU clinical manager at affiliate Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center. “We lost almost everything,” Greg recalls. “After the storm, HCA Healthcare offered water, food and a place to wash our clothes. I applied for a grant with the HCA Healthcare Hope Fund and received assistance.”

Right now, Greg is part of a group of colleagues from HCA Healthcare’s TriStar, Continental, North Texas and Capital Divisions helping both patients and colleagues decompress from COVID-19. They are working around the clock to source additional ambulances from across the nation to assist at HCA Healthcare hospitals in Florida to move patients who are ready to go back home or to a rehab center.

A woman wearing a suit sitting at a table with a laptop. There are TV screens on the wall next to her.
Jessica Picanzo, manager of enterprise emergency operations.

Jessica Picanzo, manager of enterprise emergency operations , says the teams swiftly set up ambulance and staff licensing for Florida, medical direction approval, oxygen refills for ambulances, and a dispatch process and coordination center in Nashville.

Rod Dawson, director of EMS and outreach for HCA Healthcare’s TriStar Division, is a retired firefighter and paramedic brought in for the latest effort.

“HCA Healthcare is committed to providing whatever resources are necessary. I am part of the hurricane response team, too. The core team is truly amazing with different skillsets from firefighters to ER directors – they can be deployed at any minute to help any hospital.”

A man wearing a black polo shirt standing at a desk.
Rod Dawson, director of EMS and outreach for HCA Healthcare’s TriStar Division.

“HCA Healthcare is a family. So many of our core family values revert to our mission. I know that if my family was in trouble, HCA Healthcare would step in and help.”

Rod Dawson, director of EMS and outreach for HCA Healthcare’s TriStar Division

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 186 hospitals and more than 2,000 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our approximately 275,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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