Originally published Aug. 22, 2011
As forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitored oceanic conditions in a predicted “above-normal” hurricane season, the Section of Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR) met along Georgia’s coast in Savannah. A wide range of preparedness plans were discussed at the statewide conference, but the devastating force of hurricanes was top of mind for nearly 200 EPR staff from across the state.
“It’s not the approaching hurricane that keeps us up at night,” said Annette Neu, the Director of EPR at the Coastal Health District. “It’s the angst of ensuring we’re prepared to move people and save lives. A lot of work has been done and I’m confident we’re more prepared than ever.” Neu added that EPR staff has worked to strengthen partnerships recognized as vital by the Department of Public Health (DPH).
For months, EPR has been laying plans to evacuate populations reliant upon round-the-clock healthcare including those at nursing homes and in hospitals. Additional plans to evacuate several regional hospitals have been bolstered over the last year, and perhaps just in time. Forecasters predict up to 19 named storms with seven to 10 of them growing to hurricane strength.
“It’s about planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Coastal District Health Director W. Douglas Skelton, M.D., noting that preparation has stretched far beyond the coast of Georgia.
Public health and hospital staffs from across the state continue preparations for the influx of hundreds or even thousands of patients in the event of a direct hit and major evacuation. Kelly Nadeau, EPR’s Healthcare Community Preparedness Director, assembled the groups of professionals from various disciplines now planning for mass evacuation.
“The trusted teams are looking at patient identification, patient tracking and, most importantly, they’re working to help our partners across the state build better, stronger plans,” Nadeau said after presenting an update to those gathered in downtown Savannah.
True emergencies have put several EPR plans into motion already this summer. On August 12, EPR responded to suspected biological terrorism in Newton County as 10 patients arrived at Newton Medical Center with burning hands and numbness in the eyes and on their skin. They reported opening an envelope at a plant in Covington and said they had been exposed to “white powder.” The patients drew a response from the FBI, GBI, GEMA, local law enforcement and firefighters along with district and hospital staffs. The incident forced the closure of Newton Medical’s emergency room for several hours. Biological agents were eventually ruled out.
“I can't tell you how effectively the partnerships seemed to work,” said Scott Minarcine, EPR’s interim director of the CDC’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) grant. “It really shines a positive light on all of the planning and preparation the partners have done.”
Several public health partners including representatives from the CDC attended the semi-annual EPR statewide meeting held August 16 to 18. Partners joined DPH district health directors, emergency coordinators and risk communicators, among others. Topics included surveillance and response to disease outbreak. Already the state’s elevated mosquito season has sickened two Georgians with West Nile Virus (WNV). One person has died, presumably from WNV, as confirmation tests continue.
Planning for pandemic influenza and a myriad of other potential natural and man-made threats remain continuous topics at EPR meetings.
“We’re always working to improve our state of readiness,” said J. Patrick O’Neal, M.D., Director of the Division of Health Protection who oversees EPR. “While there is much work to be done, not only here in Georgia, but across the nation, we’ve never been at such a state of readiness. And we owe that to our partners who understand it’s not necessarily the disaster we prepare for. We prepare for what happens next.”