September is National Preparedness Month. DHEC recognizes the critical role healthcare facilities play in preparing for natural disasters while still responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2015, South Carolina has seen historic floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes in our state According to the South Carolina Emergency Management Division (SCEMD), SC remains one of the most vulnerable in the nation to be impacted by hurricanes and tropical storms due to our six coastal counties bordering the Atlantic Ocean.
Various Agency Coordinating Centers (ACCs) in our agency have been activated since Governor McMaster first declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 back on March 13, 2020. These ACCs are staffed with experts and dedicated staff working with a myriad of program areas across DHEC, relevant state agencies, healthcare facilities, healthcare professionals, and the public. More recently, updating emergency evacuation plans has been at the forefront to strategically respond to any future natural disasters.
“Healthcare facilities in coastal counties always have good evacuation plans and can get their patients moved safely before a storm makes impact, but COVID now presents new problems that we’ve never had before,” said Jody Hodge, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for Healthcare Quality.
DHEC has been able to assist facilities by helping them develop updated evacuation plans that include the protection of COVID patients, including backup sheltering options and additional reinforcements.
“All the facilities were glad to hear DHEC actively reaching out because things are so uncertain now, and we offer them guidelines and the reassurance that they are fully supported in the face of any disaster. These facilities focus on patient health and safety above all,” Hodge said.
Recently, staff members worked several days contacting all community residential care facilities (CRCFs) and nursing homes in the state to get updates on their evacuation plans, including their sheltering and transportation agreements. The ACCs are preparing for the possibility of responding to a natural disaster and COVID-19 at the same time.
“DHEC would rather be overprepared than underprepared, and we won’t take any unnecessary risks,” said Rob Wronski, Director of Healthcare Professionals in Healthcare Quality.
EMS have already distributed more than 2000 oxygen cylinders for respiratory patients who are home-bound and at risk of power loss and administered than 30,000 COVID tests so far in 2020.
“Our long-term care facilities are home to some of the most vulnerable citizens in our community. They are not just at high risk to suffer life-threatening symptoms of COVID-19, but any displacement or stop in their standards of care due to a bad weather event can literally be the difference between life and death,” said MaryJo Roué, COVID-19 Response Lead in Healthcare Quality.
“It’s important to teach others that emergency preparedness is not just DHEC or SCEMD, but everyone’s business,” said Susan Cutter, Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and the Director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. Her work includes conducting research on how hazards, such as natural disasters, impact vulnerable populations, and then translating this knowledge for emergency managers and communities. “We all must work together to reduce the risks and impacts of disasters for the vulnerable by being proactive, and also help communities enhance their resilience so they are better able to withstand the impact of the next event.”
DHEC is proud to celebrate National Preparedness Month by welcoming the open communication and fundamental relationship with healthcare facilities. DHEC staff are always up to the challenge to support emergency preparedness, knowing that we are helping to save lives and maintain the quality of care that patients need.